Title IX in 2017: A Look Back

Everyone knows someone who has been through a sexual assault. On a college campus, this is more than sentiment; it’s statistics. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network [RAINN], one in four undergraduate women experience sexual assault.

In 1972, Congress changed the landscape of higher education in the United States with just 37 words, when its members enacted Title IX, a landmark law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational institution receiving federal funding.

In 2011, the Obama administration distributed the Dear Colleague letter, a piece of Title IX guidance that made sexual assault a Title IX issue.

In 2017, the administration at the University of Tennessee took a look at the last 45 years of Title IX policy and decided to do something different. This semester, UT joined the growing number of large universities dedicating entire offices and staff positions to the cause of Title IX.

On August 8, Ashley Blamey, longtime director of the Center for Health, Education and Wellness, was announced Title IX coordinator, head of the newly dedicated Title IX office. The Title IX staff – including Blamey, a senior deputy Title IX coordinator, a student support coordinator, a training coordinator and an administrative assistant – was given their own building on Melrose Avenue.

Title IX responsibilities used to fall under the associate chancellor for the Office for Equity and Diversity, Jenny Richter, and Blamey served as deputy Title IX coordinator while director of CHEW.

“I think we were working together, but we did not have one single person who it was their sole purpose to focus on this issue,” Blamey said in a phone interview in November. “We all shared parts and parcel of the responsibility.”

The new process, which the staff spent the summer perfecting, was set in motion for Fall 2017 and unveiled to students at a panel in September.

The Title IX office handles all complaints of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault, with assault being the area that gets the most attention when it comes to Title IX complaints.

Dawn Corwin, a UT graduate student who does research on Title IX history and issues, says the focus on sexual assault is a generational difference.

“Title IX used to only be focused on athletics, so, when you would go to people, they would be like ‘oh, that’s the athletic law that got women playing sports’,” Corwin said. “The original intent of the law was getting women admission into college…It was kind of compensated by athletics, and now it’s compensated by sexual assault. So it’s been a conversational change that has happened as we’ve moved through the decades of Title IX.”

Title IX complaints on campus today are almost synonymous with sexual assault accusations. To make a complaint this semester, the Title IX staff were the people a student needed to get in touch with.

“They can call, they can email, and they can come in,” Blamey said.

Once a student makes a report, they can choose one of three options. They can request limited action, report to the University, or report to the police.

One change this year is that if a student only wants limited action, which are the medical care, counseling and communication pieces that Blamey said are “designed so someone can continue to live their life,” they never have to leave the Title IX office.

“If a student only wants support resources, we don’t have to ask them to go anywhere else, and we don’t have to report outside of the Title IX office except for data,” Blamey said. “I think that is really helpful because you can build a rapport; you can have a single point of contact, and you can stop there.”

Even if a student wants to move beyond limited action, Blamey said having the dedicated office keeps the process as streamlined as possible.

“If you want to report to the university, then we involve the office of conduct and community standards. If you want to report to the police then we engage the police,” Blamey said. “But our goal is really to be as efficient as possible in regards to someone retelling their story [several times over].”

Efficiency and understanding are joint goals, and understanding is something the Title IX staff are trained to display.

“Being trauma informed is the goal, and I think that we have definitely felt a shift in that this year,” Blamey said. “That’s a positive experience.”

Not only has the process of making reports felt more positive for Blamey, but there have been more reports in general.

Blamey said back in September that the office had already seen an increase in walk-in reporting, and that trend carried on into November.

“We’ve had a lot of people come in,” she said. The standalone office eliminates the need for a student to have to explain why they’re walking in, the way they had to when Title IX issues were housed in the Office for Equity and Diversity.

“It was kind of an unexpected outcome, [for students] to know that if that’s the best way for me…to make an in-person report then, there’s no real barriers to me making that. I can walk in the door, and I can ask to see someone,” Blamey said. “I think that’s been an unexpected benefit of the office.”

Corwin agrees that the new office makes it easier for students to feel comfortable reporting their assaults.

“I think giving them a space that isn’t tied to any of the other entities helps students feel a little bit more confident that this is a confidential kind of reporting process,” Corwin said. “It gives them a little bit more credibility. Because I think students are like ‘Wow, this is really like a serious thing; they’re really invested in my care and knowledge’.”

Corwin also attributed the increase in reporting on UT’s campus to a larger increase in conversation around sexual assault on campuses.

“It’s a conversation now. There never used to be a conversation, right?” Corwin said with a laugh.

“Rape culture around college campuses has been there for decades,” Corwin continued. “You can look back to research that comes out from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and today…Then in 2011, the Dear Colleague letter said ‘Schools are now responsible, and you could lose federal funding if you don’t do steps A, B, C and D.’ So that really changed the landscape and the conversation on college campuses.”

The Dear Colleague letter has since been revoked by new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos’s actions have caused fear among some who advocate for campus assault victims that schools might go back to sweeping the issue under the rug, but Corwin doesn’t see that happening.

“Talking with Ashley [Blamey] at UT…she’s very confident that even though the Dear Colleague letter has been rescinded, that that’s not going to change the way that UT is doing things,” Corwin said. “And I’ve gotten the sense from a lot of the Title IX coordinators [nationally] that I’ve talked to that that’s the case. They’re going to keep the progress moving forward, which I think is a great thing.”

UT has been making progress on Title IX for some time, something Corwin and Blamey say the average onlooker might not have been aware of.

In 2016, UT settled a Title IX lawsuit for $2.48 million. The lawsuit was filed in February, 2016 by eight anonymous plaintiffs alleging that UT violated Title IX in its handling of sexual assault cases, especially when athletes were involved. The lawsuit claimed UT created a “hostile sexual environment.”

After the settlement, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said in a press release he felt confident that UT was “truly committed” to creating a national model for preventing and dealing with sexual misconduct.

This semester’s changes are a part of that effort, but Corwin said it would be wrong to think of them as simply a reaction to the lawsuit being made public.

“I know some might feel like it’s reactive, because of the lawsuit, but a lot of this work was going on before the lawsuit came to light,” Corwin said. “If you really look back at the history of how long they’ve been working on things, you’ll really see that they’ve been proactive at trying to create a dialogue on campus.”

When Blamey talks about Title IX at UT, she stresses the importance of educating students and faculty about these issues, so they can be stopped before they start. In addition to the work the Title IX office is doing for students, the staff just implemented a online training, mandatory for faculty and staff.

“Our faculty and staff are our more permanent community members,” Blamey said. “Students come in and spend four years with us, and then they’re onto the next location. So this goal of bringing faculty and staff into this fold was to create that longer-term community awareness.”

Corwin agrees that the goal of prevention and awareness is common among Title IX offices nationwide. She calls UT “pretty competitive” with where other large schools are in dealing with sexual misconduct on campus.

For Blamey, those goals are all about making the community safe.

“If you create a community where there is, at a very basic level, safety, then you can ensure education. If there’s not safety, then there’s not an opportunity to learn,” Blamey said. “I think that is fundamentally where Title IX is a huge part of what is a complex puzzle of things that we do in our community.”

Corwin is optimistic about the latest step in Title IX evolution.

“When Title IX was enacted in 1972, it was about getting women into college. I think it’s done a great job of doing that; if you look at our numbers, we’ve grown. In the 80s it was co-opted by athletics; we’ve seen a major growth [of women] in athletics,” Corwin said.

Everyone knows someone who has been through a sexaul assault. For the 23 percent of college women who are that someone, the conversation has become theirs.

“The new conversation is sexual assault,” Corwin said. “I think that it is time that we changed rape cultures on campus, that we end it.”

[December 4, 2017]

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Feature Story: Welcome to the Ice Chalet

It’s uncommon to stumble across a pick-up hockey game in Knoxville, Tennessee. Unless you know where to look.

Every Tuesday night at 8:45 p.m., a tiny skating rink off of Kingston Pike called the Ice Chalet holds open hockey. Bring your own equipment, $15 a player. Goalies skate free.

Players wear what they have, and the rainbow of jerseys, from old high school jersey to a professional player’s name across the back, suggest the diversity of the men who wear them. They range from high school kids to UT club players to guys with families who love to get on the ice.

“We just kind of get together, try to find goalies,” UT student Clayton Grider said. “Just enjoy hockey, and mess around.”

There are no coaches. Players on the bench shout their advice to the bodies on the ice. It’s not clear if anyone is keeping score.

“Does anyone know the Predators score?” is occasionally shouted over the din of skates scraping the ice, stick hitting puck hitting board.

This Tuesday night extravaganza is one of a dozen weekly activities by the Ice Chalet, Knoxville’s oldest year-round ice skating community.

“We have things for non-skaters, like curling and hockey,” Chalet employee Caleb Rogers said. “Everyday, we have at least two hours of time for freestyle people to come and practice skating, and most days we have classes of some sort, even if it’s just basic learning to skate.”

A full schedule of group activities is supplemented by daily public sessions.

“Every day, we have public session for three to four hours. A couple days, we have ten hour long public session,” Rogers said. “It’s a really good deal, because [at] a lot of ice rinks, you have to pay per hour, but we have a flat rate. So if you walk in here on a Saturday at noon and pay the price, you can skate until 10 o’clock that night, and it will be fine.”

Skaters who take lessons at the Chalet put on two annual shows. One takes place in the summer, and the other, Nutcracker on Ice, has been taking place every December for 30 years.

“Jews have Passover; Christians have Christmas; we have Nutcracker,” Rogers said.

The Chalet was opened in 1962 by WWII fighter pilot Chambliss Pierce, an investor with Chalet Ice Rinks, Inc. Its early history was one of financial struggle, until a German show skater named Robert Unger settled in Knoxville and saved the day.

Unger was instrumental in the founding of the Ice Skating Institute. ISI was different from traditional competitive figure skating because the emphasis was placed on performance and recreation instead of winning.

The first ISI competition, the Mississippi Valley District Figure Skating Competition, was held at the Ice Chalet in 1969. It continues there to this day, now known as the Robert Unger Skating Competition. The spirit of ISI, of Unger’s view of skating, also continues.

“We have competitions still…but it’s mostly about exhibition,” Rogers said. “We work on artistry, and we skate for the enjoyment of it, just for the sake of skating, rather than for the sake of winning. That’s why so many of us become show skaters.”

Rogers himself plans to become a show skater after he graduates from UT in May. Rogers has been skating at the Chalet since he was 10, and he’s been employed there since the age of 15.

Rogers describes himself as a combination of waiter, lifeguard and custodian. He describes the Chalet as a home.

“The Ice Chalet is definitely a family atmosphere that’s really good to be a part of,” Rogers said. “It’s sort of like it feels like a place where a family would live. A lot of ice rinks, you walk in, and it’s like a meat-packing freezer and cinderblock walls everywhere, metal. Here we [have] wood-paneled walls and a fireplace.”

The interior of the Chalet does suggest the warmth of families and Christmases past. Old skis and hockey sticks adorn the wood-paneled walls. Skates hang by their laces. The lobby is lit by a crackling fire and the glow of old-fashioned lamps.

Every surface is crowded with the memorabilia of the past half century. Plaques and trophies are proudly displayed, and nutcrackers of every size and variety watch over the skaters as the come and go.

The noise and the temperature in the ice rink itself will leave your ears ringing and your fingers stiff, but the lobby is cozy, anachronistic and warm.

Ice rinks are a rarity in East Tennessee, and Rogers knows this place is special.

“It’s just a really good thing,” Rogers said. “‘Cause not everybody’s interested in the typical sports, the typical hobbies. A lot of people went through karate, football, soccer, ballet, rifle shooting, whatever, and then they found ice skating, so that’s a good thing. It’s a niche we occupy.”

[October 12, 2017]

Feature Story: Knoxville Says ‘Hola!’ to a Weekend of Culture

Saturday night, Market Square was alive with the sound of salsa music and the scent of beans and rice.

The 18th annual Hola Festival was in full swing. Patrons crowded in the square, adults, kids and canines alike, were dancing to the music and sampling food from Mexico to Peru.

Just up Kingston Pike, the second day of the 38th annual GreekFest was winding down at Saint George Greek Orthodox Church. For three days, festival goers could try souvlaki, chunks of meat grilled on a skewer, with baklava sundaes, a sweet pastry served with syrup and ice cream, as they watched church youth perform traditional Greek dances in full costume.

Greekfest also included shopping. Vendors, who bought their wares in Greece, sold everything from jewelry and religious icons to t-shirts and stickers to Knoxville shoppers, and the line for a giant Greek pastry sale snaked through the building. Attendees could take church tours and listen to presentations on Orthodox history.

“I guess that for 38 years we just kept adding and adding,”  Lori Liakonis, the media contact for GreekFest, said. “We never take away, so it’s gotten kind of ridiculous.” 

Back on Market Square, the second day of Hola Festival, organized by local community group Hola Hora Latina, brought colorful performances to the main stage. Mariachi bands, flamenco dancers, Mexican ballet, and a Carlos Santana cover band were just a few of the cultural attractions viewers could experience for free.

While they watched, they could purchase authentic cuisine from any of the 18 food vendors.

“Our food vendors are not chain restaurants or anything,” Pedro Tomás, president of Hola Hora Latina, said. “These are families who are dedicated to doing this so it’s the real, authentic stuff. We don’t allow any Taco Bell or Soccer Taco or any of that stuff. They have to be true.”

Liakonis stressed the same authenticity in GreekFest’s cuisine, which is only fresh food made by church families eager to share their culture.

GreekFest and Hola Festival are two of six annual cultural festivals in Knoxville each year. Liakonis and Tomás both have high hopes for the effect these festivals can have on the Knoxvillians who attend.

“They will leave going, ‘You know, this is really fun’,” Tomás said. “The music is fun; the food is great; there’s great educational stuff for the kids. No politics and no religion. We try to keep it out.”

Fun is also the main message GreekFest hopes to convey.

“The main thing that we would like for people to capture is just sort of the spirit of our culture,” Liakonis said. “There’s a lot of pride, and just happiness that goes along [with it].”

Beyond simply bringing fun to the community, these festivals mean something bigger to minority communities, such as Saint George and Hola Hora Latina, that put them on.

“Being a minority culture, there’s a lot of pride in that,” Liakonis said. “This is something that is on a daily basis for us, so for us to extend our culture and our traditions to the community is just an extension of ourselves, and so it’s really a lot of joy that goes along with that, a lot of pride.”

“It means the world, especially at these times,” Tomás said. “We’re going, ‘We are exactly like you, and we are all the same.’ We just happen to be from a different countries, and it is what we [America] were founded on. We were founded on immigration.”

Tomás said Knoxville is especially open to taking part in these cultural experiences and festivals.

“Knoxville is fantastic for diversity, and to be able to accept each other the way that Knoxville does can be a great example to our nation,” Tomás said. “I’m really proud to be a part of this community.”

[September 27, 2017]

Panel educates students on new Title IX procedures

If a University of Tennessee student finds themself a victim of sexual violence, where do they go?

This year, they can walk into the brand-new Title IX Office on Melrose Avenue, and their report will be the first step in a process UT’s Title IX staff spent the summer trying to perfect.

The Title IX Office teamed up with the Chancellor’s Honors Program to familiarize students with the 2017 Policy on Sexual Misconduct, Relationship Violence, Stalking, and Retaliation by hosting a panel discussion on Tuesday night.

The 2017 fall semester is the first time in school that there has been a stand-alone Title IX Office. It’s headed up by Ashley Blamey, the former director of the Center for Health, Education, and Wellness.

Title IX is the federal policy established in 1972 that prohibits discrimination based on the sex or gender of students and employees at educational institutions that receive federal funding. This includes prohibition of sexual harassment or violence.

As Blamey explained at the panel, if a student experiences harassment or violence, the Title IX Office is where they should go.

How it Works

Blamey told the audience to start by thinking of UT as a town that contains up to 40,000 people on any given day.

“Given the size of our community,” Blamey said, “there are going to be people who are outside of our community values.”

When something happens to a student that falls outside of UT’s community values and is relevant to Title IX, the student can walk into the office and make a report.

From there, the student has three options. They can request limited action, report to the Office of Student Conduct, or report to law enforcement.

Limited action measures include connections to medical care, counseling, communication with faculty, and any arrangements that need to be made with housing, work, or transportation. The Title IX Office can also issue a no-contact directive, which Blamey describes as “a line in the sand” that UT can issue to stop interaction between two University-affiliated parties.

“There [limited action] pieces are designed someone can continue to live their life,” Blamey said.

If a student chooses limited action, they have the right to request that their contact with the Title IX Office never be released, as well as the right to refuse to name the respondent.

If a student chooses to report to the Office of Student Conduct, the person they accuse will be investigated by the Office of Student Conduct.

Betsy Smith, director of the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards, who sat on the panel, explained that since a school investigation looks different than criminal proceedings because “We’re not looking to take away the life or liberty of an individual.”

While a criminal court has to prove something took place “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the University has to prove something is “more likely than not.”

If the Office of Student Conduct meets that burden of proof, the accused person is subject to University discipline.

If a student chooses to report to law enforcement, a police investigation will take place with the goal of criminal prosecution in mind.

Blamey explained this process with a series of flowcharts, and she reminded the audience “none of this is as simple as it looks on paper” but the goal of the panel was to help students understand why the Title IX Office is here.

The Prevention Goals of Title IX

The main goal of the Title IX Office, as well as the Center for Health, Education, and Wellness is to prevent these incidents before they happen.

The process of prevention starts before new Vols even make it to campus. They take an online module the summer before their first semester and sit through a session on safety and consent at orientation.

“In Tennessee, some of our students have never had that conversation before,” Blamey said. “Some people  say ‘you can’t educate to change this issue’ and I say ‘ if that’s the case, we should all go home’.”

Once students are on campus, they can receive bystander training through CHEW’s Volunteers Speak Up program.

Blamey described Title IX issues as public health issues that all members of the campus community can work to prevent.

“Every single person in this room can help change this,” Blamey said. “If you are here, then you are part of the change.”

Title IX in 2017

Multiple students at the panel addressed concern over recent comments about Title IX investigations on campus made by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

While Blamey acknowledged that UT will have to take into account any future guidance that comes from the federal government, she reassured the students present that the procedures put in place at UT are here to stay.

“There is no concern, or shouldn’t be, that Title IX is going away,” Blamey said.

So far this semester, Blamey said things have been running more smoothly than before.

Title IX Office has seen an increase in reports. Since getting their own building, more students have been walking in.

The new policies were made with the experiences of students who are victimized and students who are accused in mind, and the panel was an early-semester push to make students aware of what those policies are and what the Title IX Office does.

“We’re worked really hard…to be more clear, to make the language more accessible,” Blamey said.

“As far as our interactions with students, it feels much more thoughtful.”

This story was originally published on The Tennessee Journalist. To view it on their website, click here.

Summer Heat Challenges the Homeless

The following story is a reader-friendly version of the audio script for a feature story I wrote and produced during my time as a WUOT news intern. The complete audio package can be found on WUOT’s website: http://wuot.org/post/summer-heat-challenges-homeless

On the afternoon of July 11, the high in Knoxville hit 91 degrees. A small crowd gathered inside Volunteer Ministry Center on Broadway, taking refuge from the beating sun outside. Getting inside, in the air conditioning, is more than just a means for comfort. It can be vital for the people served by non-profits such as VMC. One of them is Steve. He says finding drinking water is crucial.

“It’s kinda rough,” he says. “If you don’t have the right clothing, you could dehydrate very fast. There’s not too many places, I mean around here you can get water to hydrate but usually it’s hard to find that.”

Peggy uses VMC’s resource center.

“I’ve never really been a Gatorade drinker, but I have found a favorite flavor now,” she tells WUOT’s Sophie Grossrode. “A lot of people don’t want to drink water but you know what, that’s one of the things that you really need in this kind of weather.”

For most Americans, summer is a season of vacations and swimming pools. But for many of the 8,700 homeless persons the Department of Housing and Urban Development counted in Tennessee in 2016, summer becomes a time of added struggle and health hazards.

For those considered “street homeless,” exposure to the elements is a round-the-clock concern.

“If they are not involved in a program, they could be literally spending from seven o’clock till about 4 [or] 4:30 in the afternoon out on the streets,” says Gabriel Cline, clinical services director at Volunteer Ministry Center.

If left unchecked, dehydration can lead to heatstroke. Substance abuse or preexisting medical conditions can make people even more vulnerable.

“There’s a lot of different challenges,” Peggy says. “The one that I stay most concerned with is my breathing. The humidity here has been crazy. A lot of times when it gets to 85, 90 degrees, it’s very, very hard for me to breathe…it’s hard to explain how bad it is and what it can become.”

Cline says a program called White Flag is designed to help nonprofit agencies, including VMC, Knox Area Rescue Ministries and the Salvation Army, recognize hot weather and take action to help the homeless.

“[White Flag] is a program that provides inside shelter during extreme weather,” Cline says. “When the temperatures get up to 90 or above we literally hang out a white flag and folks can come inside and just be inside in shelter and get water even if they’re not a member of our program.”

Highs in Knoxville have hit 90 degrees or above more than a dozen times this month. Regardless of the thermometer reading, Steve says his summers revolve around finding shelter, finding water and cooling off whenever he can.

“If it’s hot I’ll get on the bus or the trolley or go to library or go to the park or somewhere there’s water you can cool down, but mostly when it’s hot I try to stay around this area ‘cause I know I can come in out of the heat. As far as dealing with the temperatures and being homeless it’s…”

Steve pauses and sighs.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. It can be really rough sometimes.”