College makes changes to Title IX policy in response to new federal requirements

by Lauren Adler | 7/31/20 2:10am

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by Margaret Knox / The Dartmouth

On July 14, Dartmouth’s Title IX office released proposed amendments to the College’s sexual and gender-based misconduct policy. The main changes address new federal requirements that mandate cross-examinations in disciplinary hearings and limit what colleges and universities are required to investigate under Title IX.  

Members of the Dartmouth community have been invited to review the proposed amendments and make comments to the Title IX office for 30 days, both on the Title IX website and on Zoom webinars conducted by Title IX coordinator Kristi Clemens, according to emails sent to the community by Clemens. 

The proposed amendments to Dartmouth’s policies follow the May 6 release of the U.S. Department of Education’s new Title IX guidelines, which mandate that all colleges and universities that receive federal funding must have new Title IX procedures in place and operational by August 14. 

Dartmouth’s policies will see several major changes. Cross-examinations will now be included in disciplinary hearings, in line with the new federal policy. Additionally, though the federal definition of harassment has been narrowed to only include conduct on campus or in a “college-controlled space,” Dartmouth will define conduct previously prohibited under Title IX but not addressed by the new federal definition to be a violation of its own policies, and will still investigate it through the Title IX office.

Cross-examinations are now required for all investigations into conduct that violates the federal definition of harassment under Title IX. The advisor representing the complainant (the person who has filed the complaint) will ask the respondent (the person whom the complaint has been filed against) questions written by the complainant, and then the advisor for the respondent will have the opportunity to do the same of the complainant with questions written by the respondent. If the incident falls only under the definition of Dartmouth-prohibited conduct — as opposed to Title IX prohibited conduct — the Title IX office will still hold a hearing but will not conduct a live cross-examination. 

Clemens explained that while each party may appoint whomever they like to be their advisor, the College will provide any party who needs one a trained advisor in the same field as the other party’s advisor — meaning that if one party is represented by a lawyer or college administrator, the other party will be as well. Advisors will be given specific rules of conduct for the hearing, and a hearing coordinator will also be present at the cross-examination to ensure that advisors conduct themselves appropriately. 

“I think if left unchecked, a system like this could be really detrimental to all parties involved and could make people really fearful about entering into any sort of formal resolution process,” Clemens said. “I hear that, but we are limited in what we can do.” 

Clemens added in a follow-up interview that the Title IX office “works to ensure that all parties are fairly represented throughout the Title IX investigation process.” Students have the opportunity to be “heard fairly” throughout a Title IX hearing, she said, and are “afforded due process.”

Clemens said that the Title IX office is attempting to include “checks” in the process “to ensure that we’re following the [federal] guidelines” but also to “demonstrate to any parties who might be going through the process that we are doing our best to provide guardrails throughout the process.”

Diana Whitney ’95, a founding member of the advocacy organization Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, said that while she understands that the College is forced to comply with the cross-examination policy, she is concerned that it will create a “chilling effect” on reporting because survivors of sexual assault may not want to face their perpetrators in a live setting. 

“It does appear that [Dartmouth is] trying to mitigate the retraumatizing effects of this new requirement, and I can appreciate them for that,” she said. “But even with some of the strides that have been made in advocacy for survivors here, this is a thousand steps back. It’s weakening protections against sexual harassment and assault, and it’s going to make our schools more dangerous and Dartmouth more dangerous for all students.” 

The new federal regulations also limit the scope of which incidents colleges and universities are required to investigate, both by narrowing the definition of harassment and by restricting the incidents that institutions are required to investigate to just those that occur on campus or in a college-controlled space. Dartmouth, Clemens said, will investigate incidents beyond this required scope, including any that occur on a study abroad program or in off-campus housing.  

Complainants will also still have the option to pursue an informal resolution through the Title IX office, whether or not the event in question meets the federal definition of harassment. Clemens explained that while an informal resolution cannot result in any punitive action for a perpetrator, such as suspension or expulsion from the College, complainants who choose to pursue this option can still access supportive measures like academic adjustments, housing changes or no-contact orders. 

According to Clemens, the Title IX office will also be able to investigate any instances of harassment that occur in classes held online. 

“Regardless of the [federally] defined scope of Title IX prohibited conduct, we still want people to report and we still want them to have a mechanism for resolving those complaints through the expanded definition of Dartmouth prohibited conduct,” Clemens said. “Just because things are happening online versus physically in Hanover, we're still here to respond to that and we still will respond to that because it's something that occurs within the course of your time as a Dartmouth student.” 

Summer executive chair of the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault Anastasia Perez Ternent ’22 said that while she and the rest of the committee are concerned that the new federal guidelines are not “survivor-centered,” they will still work to make sure that the Dartmouth community better understands what the new guidelines actually mean. 

“I think our first step is making it clear what has changed and making [it] accessible to the student population and to everyone in our community, because we want to make it clear that this is what you're getting into when you move into these new regulations,” Perez Ternent said. “I think next steps are really going to work with [College] staff and [SPCSA] senior leadership to see how we can create structures that are going to actually support and protect survivors, considering that these new regulations are going to be so detrimental to survivors’ space on campus.”