Title IX: Survivors deserve better

Tucker Grinnan, Feature writer

Illustration by Anna Stone.

The Title IX framework does not suit the needs of all survivors. There need to be more ways to access sexual violence support at Whitman that don’t involve Title IX. 

This might sound surprising, but Title IX’s limitations make it untenable as an all encompassing response to sexual violence on university campuses. Because Whitman is a federally funded institution, it has to follow certain guidelines outlined under the federal law that is Title IX. On its face, the text of Title IX seems fairly simple: 

“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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

However, in the context of sexual violence at US universities, it takes on different meaning. In particular, federal guidelines around Title IX outline a reporting process for sexual violence allegations that institutions like Whitman are required to follow. 

This reporting process has advantages and disadvantages. It is flexible in that it allows the survivor to choose whether or not they want to file a formal complaint and/or pursue legal action. However, it is also tied to the institution and the Title IX coordinator is obligated to take action if it is assessed that the case poses “a compelling threat to campus health and/or safety.”

These advantages and disadvantages make the process helpful in some cases and limiting in others. This is to say, the reporting process that Title IX outlines doesn’t suit the needs of all survivors. 

Unfortunately, Title IX mandates that almost all paid employees of the college (as “mandatory reporters”) must report any information they gain regarding “sexual misconduct” using the structure it details. This can make accessing sexual violence support resources that don’t involve Title IX tricky. 

Noelle Scheer, a senior, was sexually assaulted in her sophomore year by a fellow Whitman student. However, because the rape occurred off campus, she was unable to pursue recourse through Title IX. She was stuck in a sort of limbo, not being able to tell people like her professors (who are mandatory reporters) what happened, for fear she would be dragged into the Title IX system without her consent and with no possibility for resolution. 

“I started to see all these systems in place that were supposed to protect me, and were supposed to be resources for when something so horrible happens, shutting their doors,” Scheer said.

In order to prevent such situations from occurring, federal Title IX guidelines allow the college to designate certain people on campus as non-mandatory reporters. These individuals are intended to compose a network of support for survivors separate from the Title IX process. 

Cassandre Beccai, who started as Whitman’s new Director of Equity and Compliance/Title IX Coordinator last month, recognizes the importance of maintaining such a network, emphasizing the need for survivors to feel safe and in control.

“I’ve found it to be particularly important for reporters to have a host of options and opportunities to share their reports in a manner that feels safe to them,” Beccai said. “The success of our student survivors depends on a community of support systems and resources that give them control. Some of those support systems and resources should involve non-mandatory reporting systems.” 

In theory, this network of non-mandatory reporters provides much needed support for survivors without the drawbacks of Title IX. However, it is limited and strained at Whitman.

Non-mandatory reporters on campus are few and far between: they include Malia Lewis, the sexual assault victims advocate (SAVA); counseling center staff; medical staff; Adam Kirtley (the interfaith chaplain) and athletic training staff. This is not to mention that two integral elements of this non-mandatory reporting support system, the counseling center and the health center, although making intensive efforts to increase student access to health services, have been overburdened or less available as of late, leaving survivors with even fewer options that do not involve Title IX. 

However, in many cases, reporting (via a mandatory or non-mandatory reporter) is an essential step in getting survivors access to the support they need. Juli Dunn, Whitman’s Senior Associate Dean of Students and a former Title IX coordinator for the college, attested to this. 

“I think the most important thing that Whitman can do is remind students that reporting to someone (someone with privilege or someone who is obligated to report) is the best way to ensure they get access to whatever resources and support,” Dunn said. 

This leaves survivors in a tight spot if they don’t want to (or can’t) report through Title IX and aren’t finding non-Title IX sources of support that fit their needs. 

The fact that most of the sources of support survivors can turn to are faculty and admin, not students to whom they can relate, only exacerbates this situation. Adam Reid, a long time Sexual Violence Prevention (SVP) intern and former head of Athletes for Consent Education (ACE), sees this as a fundamental flaw with the sexual violence support system at Whitman. 

“Students need someone who operates in a similar social position to them to talk to,” Reid said. “Having non-mandatory reporters who are students on campus—who are trained in sexual violence response and how to respond to individuals who have either recently undergone trauma or need to process that with somebody—is crucial.” 

Scheer echoed Reid, emphasizing that the mandatory reporting system forces survivors into a uniquely difficult position. 

“When you’re in college, the adults around are mainly faculty, and you can’t turn towards them, for [sexual violence support] because of mandatory reporting, which is really hard,” Scheer said. “[Having support from trained students who are non-mandatory reporters] would be super helpful. Having students to turn to and look towards to ask advice would be amazing.” 

Leaders of the various sexual violence prevention programs (SVPs) on campus have been trying to provide the student-based support that Reid and Scheer identify as necessary. However, they are finding that the support they are able to provide is not coming close to meeting the apparent need on campus. 

Sophie Leibsohn, a senior and current co-leader of the Greek Allies Program (GAP), attested to this phenomenon and attributed it to a shortage of other support options based in non-mandatory reporting.  

“It’s tough, because right now there is so little access to sexual violence support that I feel like I’m doing triage in every area I can,” Leibsohn said. “When you don’t create enough avenues of support that are based in non-mandatory reporting, you are failing the survivor population because you are limiting access to help.”

If reporting is an essential step in helping survivors access the support they need, making sure the reporting process is flexible and accessible is critical. There need to be more avenues for survivors to seek the help they need in ways that are grounded in support from their peers and that don’t involve Title IX. Title IX needs to be one of many options.