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Barriers to Effectively Managing Sexual Misconduct Cases

Perspectives from Title IX administrators: An exploration of barriers that prevent small colleges from effectively managing sexual misconduct cases:

Original Research Conducted By Jennifer M. Scott Forry, Ed.D., Doctor of Education Alumnae, Regis College; Dean of Students, Emmanuel College

This week’s Tip summarizes the theory behind and the findings of an ATIXA research award sponsored project.

Title IX coordinators and deputies from the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) were invited to participate in the study. The researcher selected this organization because ATIXA members are nationwide and serve in a variety of roles and specialty areas that focus on Title IX. The inclusion criteria for this sample were purposeful since only small private Title IX administrators in higher education, who had served for a minimum in their role for at least one academic year and held ATIXA memberships were eligible to participate.

“ATIXA has been formed to promote professional development and foster collaboration in what is actually a field of 25,000 people who all do the same job — assuring Title IX compliance in our schools, colleges, and universities” (ATIXA, 2018). Utilizing the ATIXA email listserv the researcher sent out a request for participants who met the qualifying criteria. The researcher aimed to interview a total of (N = 12) participants or until data saturation was achieved. By capturing the stories and shared experiences of the participants the researcher was able to develop the “essence” of this narrative research study (Creswell, 2013).

For the interviews, the researcher utilized an interview guide which was developed utilizing Rubin and Rubins’ (2012) semi-structured questioning format. The interview questions addressed possible role conflicts, strategies for proving equity during investigations, and how justice is restored to the communities that are affected. The main questions served as the guide for the interview, and probes were used to clarify information and keep the conversation consistent and designed to prompt descriptions and recollections of common concerns and issues Title IX administrators face when providing fundamental fairness to accused students. 

Two reflective questions were sent to participants one week following the interview. Each participant was asked to answer the following questions:

  1. Is there any additional information you would like to contribute to this study?
  2. Did participating in this study provide the opportunity for you to consider your current process? Do you believe it is equitable to both parties?        

This descriptive study found that there are three key obstacles that inhibit providing fundamental fairness for students accused of sexual misconduct when Title IX coordinators and deputies are employed at small private institutions: 1) role conflict; 2) small resources; and 3) perceived bias. However, until financial resources, fewer responsibilities for Title IX administrators, and more transparency with cases are made readily available for small colleges and universities these identified issues will continue to persist. Small colleges and universities need to have sub-guidelines for Title IX requirements as they do not have the ability to operate in the same manner as larger more established private institutions. Until accused students across the nation feel they were provided a fundamentally fair process, colleges and universities will continue to put themselves at risk for Title IX violations.

The following three themes emerged from the interviews with 10 experienced Title IX coordinators and deputies at 10 different small private colleges and universities throughout the nation:

Role Conflict: “Every member of our Title IX team has a dual role on campus”. At small colleges and universities, it takes every administrative position to ensure the daily needs of the institution are met. Many participants commented on how their institution would never be able to financially sustain its own Title IX office or full-time position. This leads to a perpetual cycle of role conflict, especially roles that are student-centered. Role overload was also identified as becoming increasingly problematic, as the demands on Title IX administrators and the demands on their other roles continue to grow. In some cases, the administrators in this study needed to step away from cases completely or delegate other responsibilities to competent staff so they could focus on the case in order to ensure an equitable process for both parties could occur.

Small resources at small colleges: “I have just enough in my budget to attend one training per year and that is all”.Several of the participants acknowledged that the development of a SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) was helpful when training resources were limited. These teams allow for multiple members of campus to meet and discuss how their institution is addressing sexual misconduct while building trusting relationships with colleagues across campus. Planning ahead, small colleges and universities could benefit from working together on joint training funded by multiple institutions. The longer-serving Title IX administrators emphasized the need for better resources to adequately and confidently do their job.

Perceived Bias: “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t”. Perceived bias was a major factor for most of the participants, particularly when asked about how they work with the accused student. Understandably, a student accused of sexual misconduct will traditionally present as angry, defensive, and emotional since their ability to remain as a student at the institution is often on the line. However, because of this, it is extremely important for Title IX coordinators and deputies to be able to remain “compassionate yet impartial”, as one participant shared.

Additionally, there are a lack of programs to support accused students throughout the process or help them navigate their way back into the college culture if they are found not responsible. One participant in this study shared, “we once had a male student come in before a report was made and stated, ‘I think I’m going to be accused of sexual misconduct, what do I do’? This caught the participant off guard, as the young man automatically assumed he should come to the office to “turn himself in” because he felt he stood a greater chance at a fair process if he arrived first.

When the researcher questioned the participants about their thoughts on using restorative justice for lower-end sexual misconduct investigations and adjudications, only one participant expressed they currently employ the practice. The majority of the participants did not know enough about restorative justice to put it into practice effectively and some shared they had concerns with integrating restorative justice into any type of sexual misconduct case.

Recommendations for Policy and Practice

The principal findings of this study provide the following recommendations for policy and practice:

  1. Limit the amount of responsibilities per Title IX administrator. From an organizational perspective, small colleges and universities need to change how Title IX work is delegated and shared. When an employee is unable to give the appropriate time and attention to a Title IX case the institution runs a high risk of procedural errors occurring. All small universities and colleges should be required to have one full-time Title IX administrator whose entire focus and responsibility is Title IX related work. Employees can stay on as deputies to assist with Title IX operations, but the significant workload and time will be minimized. This would assist in alleviating role-conflict and perceived bias. Small colleges and universities must invest in more personnel or they need to shift other responsibilities from Title IX administrators’ workloads.

2. Incorporate restorative justice into the Title IX process. With the release of the 2020 federal regulations, informal resolution is now permitted. With restorative justice practices, campuses can work with individuals and campuses toward healing. This approach could serve particularly well at small colleges and universities. Colleges and universities should work to train facilitators who will learn how to balance these delicate these cases while bringing closure to both parties.

3. Allow consortiums to share Title IX resources. Under the current federal law colleges and universities are required to have their own Title IX coordinator and often need a team of deputies. Due to current financial limitations that all colleges and universities face related to the Covid-19 pandemic, institutions should be allowed to share resources with established consortiums. For example, a group of colleges could share Title IX team members, retain a common attorney, trained investigator, advisors, hearing officers, and/or appeal officers, who would work with all the institutions. This would offset the already small resources that exist and offer a deeper bench and access to impartial professionals to review the cases to avoid perceived bias and role conflicts.