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]