With 4 Title IX cases under investigation, groups try to improve handling of sexual violence on campus
Campus groups and the installment of a Title IX coordinator are part of UW-Madison's efforts to maintain sexual violence prevention efforts in the midst of four investigations by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights..Image By: Ben Davis
UW-Madison is being investigated for four cases of mishandling reports of sexual violence—the second-most of any Big Ten school, after the University of Indiana’s five, and more than double the average of investigations for all Big Ten institutions.
Student groups and university administration, faced with the possibility of these cases never being fully investigated, are working to fight sexual violence on campus.
These investigations stem from possible Title IX violations, which were redefined in April 2011 when a letter that altered the landscape of Title IX enforcement and put almost every major university in some form of noncompliance was issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs, was—for the first 39 years of its existence—largely associated with the rise of women’s sports and extracurricular programs in schools across the country. In recent years, it has shifted to also focus on how universities handle sexual assault.
Within three years of the letter, the OCR had released a list of 64 institutions that were under investigation for mishandling reports of sexual violence—this number has since grown to more than 200.
UW-Madison was not on the initial list, but the OCR began investigating the university Feb. 24, 2015, for the first of four violations.
Although the investigations are still open, the university has taken several steps to get in compliance with the new standards. Most significantly, David Blom was hired as the school’s first full-time Title IX coordinator in the summer of 2015, and took over the role of handling sexual assault investigations.
“UW-Madison has made a concerted effort over the past several years to break down barriers to reporting and encourage more students to come forward and seek assistance,” said UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone.
Changes were also made to the UW System, as the Board of Regents solicited student feedback on revisions to the UWS Chapter 17 policy instituted in spring 2016, which governs non-academic misconduct, including sexual violence. Prior to the revisions, Chapter 17 did not include definitions for dating violence, domestic violence or sexual harassment, and failed to ensure equal treatment for complainants and respondents in an investigation.
Although progress has been made, some students said the university’s focus is on preserving its image rather than properly combating sexual assault.
“They have an agenda, their agenda is to protect the reputation of a Big Ten school,” said Georgia Black, a UW-Madison student and sexual violence survivor advocate. “I don't believe we're gonna see any actual change on campus until their agenda aligns with what is right and moral, which is that sexual assault shouldn't be happening, and it should be persecuted.”
Going forward, that change will likely have to begin on campus, as the Trump administration and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have signalled their intentions to revise and potentially roll back the Obama administration’s Title IX guidance.
“The Administration’s distortion of Title IX to micromanage the way colleges and universities deal with allegations of abuse contravenes our country’s legal traditions and must be halted,” the GOP’s 2016 platform said.
The Department of Education issued a new letter Feb. 22 that directly contradicts the previous administration’s guidance on protections for transgender students. This has lead some Title IX activists and individuals within the higher education community to believe the OCR will not enforce Title IX compliance as vigorously as it had under former President Barack Obama.
UW-Madison will continue to uphold the standards of the Obama administration's Title IX guidelines, according to McGlone. She said recent efforts include adding the End Violence on Campus Coordinating Council, a Student Title IX Advisory Committee and additional prevention programs that were inspired by findings in the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.
"UW-Madison works to ensure our process and policies are as equitable and effective as they can possibly be," McGlone said. "Our approach to sexual violence is transparent, data-driven and constantly being improved as best practices in this area evolve ... Sexual violence not only does great harm to victimes—it has a negative effect on the entire campus community."
McGlone said they are continuing to make sexual assault a priority. She said Title IX will remain in federal law to protect students from gender-based discrimination, and the university is also subject to state laws, regulations on student misconduct policies and reporting of sexual assault statistics.
In recent years, a network of student and community groups also have begun to address the issue of sexual violence at UW-Madison. In addition to resources like EVOC and Promoting Awareness, Victim Empowerment, there are also groups like loveusletters.com.
Started by Black, loveusletters has become an online community where survivors of sexual violence can go to tell their stories and receive “support, community and compassion” from other survivors and allies.
“I would say the campus is way more active and involved than the university,” said Erin Gray Daly, a UW-Madison student and sexual assault activist. “In the last four years I've seen students be more active in this and they're really been taking charge and a lot of that's in response to what the university's not doing.”
Another group that could play a key role in ensuring that the university continues to comply with Title IX is the Associated Students of Madison’s Student Title IX Advisory Committee, a shared governance group that meets with Blom and other administrators to bring student feedback to university policies regarding Title IX and sexual violence investigations.
While student activism around sexual violence will continue to be prominent, Gray Daly said this activism may be limited without access to institutional power structures like the OCR.
“We can continue to be loud and active … but I just worry what's gonna happen without that access to those resources,” Gray Daly said.
UPDATE March 15, 7:25 p.m.: This story was updated to include further information about UW-Madison's Title IX policies under the new administration from a UW-Madison spokesperson.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter