Whitman students and Title IX administrators adjust to federal guideline changes

Grace Jackson, Staff Reporter

After a year of changes to Title IX legislation, college students and Title IX administrators are dealing with the fallout. 

In Aug. 2020, the Trump administration fundamentally changed Title IX, a federal law that regulates how colleges and universities handle sexual assault and harassment.

Additionally, Whitman’s Title IX administrator has also changed twice during this academic year. 

The college’s current interim Title IX coordinator is Daniel Swinton, Vice President of the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) and partner at TNG consulting firm. Swinton took over the role from Thomas Witherspoon, then-Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Nationally, Title IX programs are changing to adjust to the new Trump administration regulations. The changes made to the law by the Trump administration are the first to go through the formal notice and comment period since 1997 and the first formal rulemaking on a major Title IX issue since 1975, according to the Brookings Institute

The changes officially define terms like complainant and respondent and encourage trials with live cross-examination.

Swinton said that the changes affect both the policy and procedural requirements of the law. 

“[Section] 106.30 [of Title IX] requires certain policy definitions for schools to apply for sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence and dating violence and stalking,” Swinton said. “The bulk of the amendments to the regulations came in section 106.45, which is procedural. They enhanced the due process requirements under Title IX processes.”

The due process requirements change how the college is required to adjudicate claims of sexual misconduct. Previously, if a student filed a complaint with the Title IX office, or disclosed to a mandatory reporter, an investigation would be immediately launched. 

With the new regulations, the college only launches an investigation in most circumstances if the complainant requests one, and the first priority of the office is to offer supportive measures, according to Swinton. “Supportive measures” are defined in amendments as services to restore education access and protect the safety of the complainant without placing an unreasonable burden on the respondent.

If an investigation is launched, a notice is sent to the complainant and the respondent beforehand. An investigator for the Title IX office would interview witnesses, allow the respondent to draft an investigation report, and meet with both parties and allow them to review any evidence before it is submitted to a decision-maker. Whitman has 20 faculty and staff members trained by the ATIXA as Title IX hearing officers and decision-makers.

The decision-maker would make a decision on the case and determine if any sanctions are appropriate. Swinton added that there may be a trial depending on the nature of the allegation. 

The change to the trial process is one of the most controversial parts of the Trump administration regulations. The regulations that are specific to higher education institutions make hearings available upon request, where advisors to each party are able to question the other. 

“At the live hearing, the decision-maker(s) must permit each party’s advisor to ask the other party and any witnesses all relevant questions and follow-up questions, including those challenging credibility,” a Department of Education summary of the changes says. “Such cross-examination at the live hearing must be conducted directly, orally, and in real-time by the party’s advisor of choice and never by a party personally.”

Senior Helena Zindel, an intern for YWCA Sexual Assault Victims Advocate Malia Lewis, said that the new format of the trial is particularly difficult for victims because it can be retraumatizing to be questioned in front of their abuser. Zindel learned about the changes to Title IX while assisting in the planning of the Tri-College Summit on Sexual Violence.

Helena Zindel, a senior, works as an intern for YWCA and helped to plan the Tri-College Summit on Sexual Violence. Photo by Nathaniel Martin.

“I think it’s really important for people to know how detrimental [Former Secretary of Education] Betsy Devos’s changes to Title IX have been to survivors,” Zindel said. “It’s a very complex legal piece and because it involves so much legal jargon and knowledge it is something that most people don’t understand how it functions or what rights they have under Title IX.”

Zindel said that Lewis, her supervisor at YWCA is a great confidential resource for students looking for support. Resident life assistants (RAs) and many staff and faculty members are considered “officials with authority” (formally called mandatory reporters) and they are required to report any disclosure to the Title IX office. 

Swinton, the Title IX administrator, said that he anticipates that the Biden Administration will make changes to the law, but it will take time for them to come into effect. Already, President Biden signed an executive order specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity under Title IX. 

Swinton said that the day-to-day operations to the Title IX office will likely remain unchanged for the time being. He said that the primary objective of the office is to remove any obstructions to education caused by sexual misconduct and that students can seek support at all hours through an online form or by contacting the coordinator or any of the assistant coordinators.