By Corinne Hennessey – Contributing Writer
Title IX Coordinator Jennifer O’Keefe in her Eager House office. Photo by Corinne Hennessey.
Lasell College Title IX Coordinator Jennifer O’Keefe reacts to Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s, speech to repeal Title IX in regards to sexual violence.
First of all, what is Title IX?
Title IX is the federal law against gender discrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on sex. It became popular in respect to athletics, but has grown to apply to cases of sexual violence, sexual harassment and dating violence. It has broadened the scope of the law and now is being applied to institutions that receive federal funding, including colleges and public schools. It’s a mechanism used to enforce fair adjudication of complaints from students.
Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s speech on the repeal of Title IX she claims “Title IX is a burden to administrators”. Do you agree?
I think it is a lot to ask of school administrators to be trained and capable of investigating and adjudicating allegations of sexual violence. It’s not just about asking questions related to the allegations, it’s about understanding trauma and how it impacts recollection in statements. It takes a lot to adequately investigate allegations. I do believe most schools are trying to do the right thing, but I think it’s going to come down to an issue of training and capability.
How have schools been dealing with this burden?
Administrators are already handling all the other issues students are dealing with. Cases [of sexual violence] are really time consuming. What we’re seeing is schools are starting to hire Title IX coordinators. By law they must have [a Title IX coordinator] but they’ve been appointing people already on campus, like a dean. When they realized how involved it was, they started hiring people, specifically people with law degrees— which makes sense because it’s legally based. I do agree it’s a burden for administrators.
Secretary DeVos claims “Title IX is confusing for administrators”. What part do you think she is referring to?
What the Department of Education was doing by implementing Title IX was saying we’re not telling you this is how you have to do it, but this is our guidance. Schools that have been found not to be in compliance [with Title IX] weren’t following the guidance from the Department of Education and so I think that’s where the confusion is. Colleges haven’t been given a clear example of what this process is supposed to look like. The Department of Education has allowed every school can have their own policy and create it the way they see fit but keep certain regulations in mind.
Secretary DeVos made an emphasis on Title IX being an unfair process. Do you think it’s fair to students?
What’s puzzling to me is we are required to have a fair process by the current rules and regulations. If schools aren’t providing due process and conducting things in a fair and impartial way, then they’re not acting within the current rules and regulations. The overall theme is she is going to tell schools they don’t need to act within these rules any longer or she is going to completely change the system.
Is Title IX a burden to students?
As long as you have the resources to have a person who’s highly trained and skilled and has the time to devote to these cases then it’s not a burden. There are certain schools who don’t have those resources and I think it’s unfair not to give students the chance to go through the college process for certain cases that fall under Title IX. To require them to go to the police, first of all is going to be a huge deterrent to students reporting. The criminal standard of proof is much higher than the college standard. Giving students a chance to get justice is more likely to happen in the college system than in the criminal system.
What is the standard of proof required of the college system (Title IX) compared to the criminal system?
The standard of proof the Department of Education has laid out for colleges and schools to use is preponderance of the evidence. Is it 51% likely this incident occurred. This is the same standard applied to all discipline cases. To show we believe this incident was 51% likely to have happened, means we’re more likely to take action. The standard in the criminal system is beyond a reasonable doubt, which is still not easily defined. What I think DeVos is suggesting is the standard is too low for [sexual violence] cases. I’m struggling with why we are singling out these specific allegations and telling students we’re not going apply higher standards, she even suggested it should be the criminal standard. That’s not going to happen because we are not the criminal justice system. The reason the criminal standard is so high is because people go to jail, nobody is losing their freedom through the college system. They may get expelled from school but she seems to fail to understand the standard isn’t going to happen in the civil system.
Do you think if we would’ve had better societal examples, students would feel less intimidated of going through the criminal process?
No matter what it’s emotionally taxing for students to tell their story, even one time. It doesn’t matter who they’re telling the story to. Cases of [sexual violence] often times have no other witnesses or evidence, it comes down a matter of word. If they’re accused are found not responsible, the feeling becomes personal, “you didn’t believe me, how do I prove to you I’m telling the truth?” These feelings are the same in the criminal system and in the civil system at colleges.Right now you have three choices, you can go to the school, you can go to the police, or you can do both. It’s extremely rare students will choose to go through the police, because they’re intimidated by being interviewed by the police, they’re intimidated of the thought that someone might be arrested. With Title IX, they’re speaking to someone they know, or are at least aware of on campus, and it’s less intimidating.
Do you think removing the system is fair to students and schools?
I think it’s a very bad idea because the process has been working and schools have worked very hard to be in compliance with the guidelines. They’ve hired people like myself who have a background in law regarding domestic and sexual violence. We’ve all worked hard to create these policies and have gone through extensive training. The students are becoming familiar and educated with the process. To totally take the process away doesn’t make any sense to me. If she feels there should be additional guidelines, that’s fine. When I listened to her speech it became clear to me she’s very concerned about students who have been accused and expelled from school. If expulsion was a result of an unfair process then that’s a problem with the system. I didn’t hear that from her. I think what she’s suggesting is schools are assuming guilt when they shouldn’t be. Whatever decision is made needs to be backed up by facts, so I don’t understand where she’s coming from.
Do you think there’s a better way to do Title IX?
In regards to sexual violence, no matter what the process is it’s going to be extremely difficult. Ideally if you’re an institution who can afford to have a separate Title IX coordinator, someone who is highly trained and whose full time job is to investigate these allegations and adjudicate these situations. The best thing we can do is educate students on what the process is and what the likely outcomes are, because there is no guaranteed outcome. My goal is to help students make informed decisions.
Do you think if we repeal Title IX we would be back tracking now that schools have invested in Title IX Coordinators like yourself?
Yes, I think it’s going to cause chaos and I think it’s going to make survivors of sexual violence feel as though they don’t matter anymore. We’re going to go back to the times where people just didn’t report.
Our justice system already makes it difficult for survivors to get justice and help. What message does this speech send to them?
I think the message was the Department of Education is very concerned these allegations brought against students are a result of false accusations. I think what she’s suggesting is students could have done something to stop the situation from happening. I would agree she sounds more concerned about those being accused than the survivors of the sexual violence.
What kind of effect do you think this is going to have?
Right now it’s just talk, there haven’t been any changes, but I think it’s pretty clear that changes are coming and we don’t know when they’re going to happen or what they’r going to be. I find it interesting she’s making this at the beginning of the school year. I don’t know why she chose this specific time to make this speech but I think her speech has already caused a lot of anxiety.
What message would you like to send to survivors and students?
Our process is still in place and we believe in that process. We are here to support survivors, to provide them with resources and to provide them with a fair and impartial process, should they wish to go through with it. To the students who are accused- we are committed to provide you with a fair and impartial investigation of the allegation. We are not changing anything we’re doing until we’re told we have to.