The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Tracking Title IX progress and challenges amid renewed discussions

Students and professors weigh in the Title IX office as discussions on sexual misconduct have increased on campus

Professors who have taught at Washington and Lee University for decades acknowledge progress in Title IX and sexual misconduct awareness, but emphasize that there is still a long way to go.

“When I got here in 2005, we didn’t even have a Title IX coordinator,” Melina Bell, a philosophy and law professor, said. “It was out of control. And nobody thought it was important at the time.”

At the time, the university policy for sexual misconduct and harassment was less than three pages long, with no definitions to accompany it.

Now, the interim sexual misconduct policy contains over 20 sections, going in-depth into procedures regarding reporting, supportive measures and other resources. But this interim policy has been in place since 2015, and the last revision was in August 2022.

“When are we getting the real one? Why is the policy still labeled as ‘interim’?” Bell asked.

Lauren Kozak, the Title IX Coordinator, wrote in an email to the Phi that the policy is still interim because the legal and regulatory environment is constantly changing.

“For several years, we have been anticipating changes to federal regulations. Those regulations have repeatedly been delayed,” she wrote.

The current policy offers two main paths for resolution after a student files a formal complaint: a formal investigation and hearing, or an informal resolution process.

“The focus of an investigation and hearing is on whether University policy was violated, and if so, what sanctions should be imposed,” Kozak wrote. “Informal resolution is not focused on whether University policy was violated, but on creating an agreement to address harm and promote accountability.”

Caroline Holmes, ’25, president of the SPEAK organization dedicated to preventing and educating about sexual misconduct on campus, said the informal resolution process can be convoluted at times.

“The office can’t subpoena anything. It’s just what you give them. So, unfortunately, that does get really hairy if you have a potentially dangerous situation unfolding,” Holmes said.

But Kozak wrote that this process allows both parties to play a role in controlling the outcome.

“Because informal resolution does not have to follow the very rigid, structured process of an investigation and hearing, it is also usually a shorter process,” she wrote.

Holmes said that the informal resolution process is best for people who do not want to seek permanent legal action or results. But it comes with its drawbacks.

“The bad thing about the informal resolution is that you can ask your assailant to leave campus, but they can always just say no,” she said.

The other resolution process involves proceeding with a formal investigation and a hearing before the Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Board (HSMB).

After the HSMB conducts the hearing and investigation, according to the interim policy, “If the respondent is found ‘Responsible,’ the HSMB hearing panel will determine what sanction is appropriate.”

But after a formal investigation and hearing seven years ago, Bell claims she lost faith in this system.

“I used to always urge students to report things [to the Title IX office], but after this case, I went ballistic. That was it for me,” Bell said.

She referred to a decision by the HSMB from April 2017, involving a student that she knew who had filed a complaint alleging nonconsensual sexual penetration. According to the decision, the HSMB ruled that the accused student was responsible for violating university policy.

But, according to the ruling, the board found that the accused student did not fall under the mandatory sanction of dismissal because he was not “responsible beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Instead, he was suspended for the fall term of the 2017-2018 academic year and faced loss of privileges, residential relocation and probation for one year following the ruling.

“She still saw him in class all the time since they were in the same major. It’s like he got a slap on the hand for raping somebody,” Bell said.

To ensure thoroughness, Holmes recommended going the legal route. “If something happened to me on campus, and I felt unsafe, I would go to the police first so there’s nothing hidden, altered or unsaid,” Holmes said.

The Title IX office does not hold the same power as the legal system, she said. “They have to treat both parties pretty much the same because they are both students. But [the police] will treat your rapist like a criminal, and you are much more likely to find a clearer answer.”

A revived discussion

Since Brandon Konlian, ’24, was acquitted for a stalking charge on March 15, W&L students have been wondering about the resources that the university has to offer students.

“I’ve gotten a lot more questions as of late, because [the Konlian case] was so recent,” Holmes said. “If anything, it makes me a little upset because it takes a crisis for people to care.”

Holmes said students want the university to better inform them about available resources.

“But W&L actually does put out quite a few opportunities for people to get information on these things, but sometimes students don’t go or they’re too busy,” Holmes said.

On April 2, about 50 people gathered for SPEAK’s annual Take Back The Night event. Survivors and other students shared personal stories and poems describing experiences with sexual assault.

Janet Boller, the sexual misconduct advocate on campus, addressed the students at the event, outlining the Title IX and Project Horizon resources that are available to them.

The Title IX office has sent out a sexual misconduct survey in previous years, with the last one being conducted in March 2021. The most recent was sent to the student body on March 26. The survey covered questions surrounding students’ knowledge of university policies, perceptions of the reporting process and personal experiences with sexual misconduct.

Kozak wrote that three years ago, there were similar questions regarding students’ perspectives on the reporting procedures. According to the results, about 47% of respondents had confidence in campus officials to conduct a fair investigation. But over 50% of respondents remained neutral or disagreed. 

Meanwhile, the Executive Committee has been largely silent on the topic of sexual misconduct.

Martha Ernest, ’24, President of the Student Body, said that last year, there was a conversation about creating a standing committee on sexual misconduct within the EC. “But I don’t remember how that was resolved,” she said.

Bell said that there is no doubt that the Title IX office, and the student body as a whole, has made progress since she arrived in 2005. But it’s not yet where it needs to be, she said.

“Raising awareness of sexual assault through things like the Title IX office is an uphill battle at times,” Holmes said. “It takes facilitating conversations that are uncomfortable but very necessary.”

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