A new face for Title IX

Note: This story discusses sexual assault, harassment, and gender-based misconduct.

Photo by Alice Fan

On February 27, after months of the #MeToo movement revealing sexual assault in industries from film to finance, 120 Hendrix students filled The Burrow in a demonstration meant to “raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment” on campus. The demonstration pointed to ineffective college policies and procedures for handling instances of sexual assault and gender-based misconduct, calling for a more active administrative response, a thorough process of reporting, and enhanced education on consent and sexual assault.

Six months later, just a week before the fall semester began, the college answered these calls for change with the hiring of Dr. Allison Vetter as its new Title IX Investigator and Education Coordinator, along with a comprehensive review of Hendrix’s Title IX policy and its staff involved in gender-based misconduct cases. Title IX is the statute passed in the Education Amendments of 197, stating, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Because federal aid is given to Hendrix students, the school is required to abide by this law. In the past, the enforcement of Title IX has centered around athletics, ensuring that women’s sports are treated and funded equitably across the country. Over the past several years, however, Title IX concerns have focused on sexual harassment and assault in institutions of higher learning. Harassment and assault of any kind affect a student’s ability to receive a quality education, so colleges must do whatever they can to ensure a healthy and safe campus, atmosphere, and culture.

While Hendrix reviews its Title IX policies every summer, Title IX Coordinator Shawn Goicoechea acknowledged the impact of the Times Up, Hendrix demonstration and the following forums that took place on campus. “We got a lot more feedback last year,” he said, “there was obviously a lot more conversation on this topic going on than there had been in prior years.” While the interpretation and enforcement of Title IX is always evolving, Goicoechea explained that one of the biggest changes to Hendrix’s policies is the move away from using live hearings in cases of misconduct. Such hearings were seen as unnecessarily traumatic for those affected by sexual misconduct. “It wasn’t an ideal approach,” Goicoechea said, “so we have shifted to the panel, doing those as a closed review of the information.” In place of the hearing, questioning and information-gathering will happen through the school’s new investigator. The school will also rely more heavily on a panel when proceeding with misconduct cases, and the policies themselves will be more accessible. Instead of separate policy locations for gender-based misconduct and student misconduct, both are incorporated into the student handbook.

The hiring of Dr. Allison Vetter as the school’s Title IX investigator is seen as a major improvement in the way the college handles misconduct cases, ensuring that the review of each case is both more thorough and more efficient. Before, the primary investigator for these cases was current Associate Dean of Students and Director of Student Rights and Responsibilities, Kesha Baoua. She was also the overseer of the process itself, which involves three parts: the issuance of the allegation, the investigation of the allegation, and the determination of the responsible party.

“Those first two steps [Dr. Vetter] does completely now,” Baoua said, “and then that third step—she will still do some of that, but I will do some part.” Baoua will still serve as a Title IX deputy along with Dean Jim Wiltgen and others on campus, making up a Title IX team that can take reports and provide input on misconduct cases. However, when it comes to student allegations of misconduct, Baoua said, “Ideally, they’ll report to Dr. Vetter.”

Dr. Vetter previously served as Title IX Coordinator at Henderson State University. At Hendrix, she will be the school’s first Title IX Investigator and Education Coordinator. “Here, my position is to investigate complaints of gender-based misconduct that are student on student,” Vetter said, “Also to coordinate all of the education, awareness, and prevention efforts across campus.” Her first goal is to “get an accounting of what’s going on, what are we doing, where are the gaps, and how can we better communicate information to everybody,” including making sure students know exactly what Title IX is and how it affects them.

The review of the college’s gender-based misconduct policies occurred during the summer before Vetter’s hiring, but she says the move away from live hearings is a good thing. “In every training that I’ve been to they’ve advised that you don’t use that model,” she said. “We know in terms of how people experience trauma that can be retraumatizing and not healthy.” She also expressed her satisfaction with the implementation of a review panel in misconduct cases. “Having a panel review and make decisions instead of it falling in the lap of one person I think is good. That gives objective fresh eyes, and that person being separate from who does the investigation is also pretty important.”

By restructuring the Title IX process and hiring an investigator, the role of investigation itself was moved out of the Dean of Students office, removing the possibility for conflict of interest. “They’re a resource, but they’re also investigating,” Vetter said, “so I think that’s important too that they pulled that out and I report directly to the President.

Title IX processes and structures vary from campus to campus across the country. Some institutions employ a coordinator who conducts investigations, writes reports, and decides verdicts all on their own. Other campuses like Henderson State University have a Title IX committee made up of 25 to 30 faculty and staff who are trained to work with Title IX matters. Members of the committee investigate reports of misconduct at the direction of the coordinator. They also use a panel similar to the one being developed at Hendrix to hand down verdicts.

Apart from investigating, Vetter plans to implement a Title IX and gender-based misconduct education program across campus because it is not always clear what steps should be taken when handling misconduct allegations. “I would like to do more face to face where I go into a classroom, whether that’s Explorations but also for upperclassmen,” Vetter said, “because I think there’s been a lack of communication at times, or at least some students feel like they don’t always know exactly where to go or what to do or what’s going to happen.” Vetter would also like to be a guest lecturer in any class, which she did earlier in the semester.

More training and resources will be offered to staff in the future to further enhance the college’s ability to handle misconduct reports. Vetter is also currently working on developing a central location where resources will be available for anyone on campus. “I’ve heard some feedback on how the website is not great,” Vetter said. “It’s kind of hard to find things, so that’s something I want to work on too.”

Vetter has lived in Conway for 17 years and is friends with several members of the Hendrix community. “I feel like it’s very homey, and I appreciate being welcomed,” she said, “but what I want people to know is [that] I want to hear particularly from students, whether it’s your grievances about things that have happened and what [you] want to have better or your ideas for more education or what you feel like you need. My door is open.”

Visit the Gender-Based Misconduct page on the Hendrix College website or look at the student handbook for information and resources on Title IX and gender-based misconduct policies. Remember: professors are Mandatory Reporters of misconduct information and must report it to Dr. Vetter or Shawn Goicoechea . Chaplains and counselors are not Mandatory Reporters.

This story originally appeared in the September Print Edition of The Profile

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