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Universities weigh possible Title IX changes

By Clay Winowiecki - cwinowiecki@chronicle-tribune.com

Conversations about sexual assault are at the forefront of university discussions after national campaigns, such as #MeToo, lit a wildfire to smoke out sexual harassers.

As of late, this conversation has ignited even more due to recently proposed regulation changes by US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos seeks to loosen Obama-era regulations by adding protections to students accused of assault and harassment. The proposed regulations may also narrow the number of cases schools are required to investigate.

As DeVos seeks to loosen Title IX regulations, local universities are trying to determine how the changes will affect them.

"We're trying to digest it and trying to determine, even if the proposed changes do go through, whether we'll use (our own) more rigorous standard or not," said Neil Rush, Title IX coordinator at Indiana Wesleyan University.

The changes are yet to be finalized, so IWU has not made any adjustments to its sexual assault policies as of yet.

"There's a lot of different components," Rush said. "It's so up in the air and who knows what the final version will be."

Because of the Christian community, Rush said, the university is naturally more sensitive to how people treat one another.

"We maintain equitable processes for both respondent and complainant," he added.

There's also a heightened obligation (to prevent assault) due to religious standards, according to Rush.

"Maybe language in a typical workplace some may find appropriate, but we try to hold each other to biblical standards here," he said. "We're still trying to keep very serious about many of these things, regardless."

IWU offers many educational programs on how to both prevent and report sexual assault.

"During fall programing we ... bring in different speakers to talk about sexual assault," he said. "We're (also) going to do poster campaigns and show movies."

The university also makes incoming students take an online course on sexual assault and offers brochures and a webpage which details how to report incidents should they occur.

Rush said reports of sexual assault come in cycles, but the educational programs make a difference.

"When you do a heavy education component promoting a lot more awareness of (reporting sexual assault), people tend to take advantage of those avenues," he said.

Rush did not give any specific numbers on the amount of sexual assault cases reported to the university.

"We typically have some type of a case going on at all times," he said. "(But) when you look at other schools with a big Title IX staff, they get more in a week than us in a quarter."

IWU also takes a religious exemption on students in the LGBTQ community, which is filed with the Office for Civil Rights.

Rush said the exemption serves to protect the religious freedom of the university, but it plays no role in any incidents of sexual harassment that are reported.

“I don’t care who they are,” he said. “If they have a complaint, it will be addressed. We still take every one of those cases seriously.”

At Taylor University, the sexual assault conversation on campus is a popular discussion.

“The general conversation (about sexual assault) on campus has increased with the increased regulations for Title IX,” said Title IX Coordinator Jesse Brown.

If the proposed loosened regulations pass, Taylor will do its best to implement them, Brown added.

“Whatever the guidelines are will influence our policy and procedures,” he said. “If we need to do something different, if there needs to be a change in our process or definition of (sexual assault or harassment) based on federal guidance, we will need to implement those changes and communicate what may be different here in our community.”

One feature of the proposed guidelines is allowing the accused to cross-examine the victim at a live hearing.

“The examination proposal is there because persons involved have not felt ... the ability to ask clarifying questions from those making the allegation,” Brown said.

However, there is an issue with allowing such a cross-examination to occur.

“(Victims) may need to either be in the same room or be cross-examined while that person is in the room,” Brown said. “That can have a chilling effect on persons wanting to make a report. It can serve to get clarity for the respondents, but it also can have a chilling effect.”

Taylor is also looking to ramp up student training efforts in order to inform students on how to spot sexual assault and harassment and on how to report it.

As of now, the university places information in residence halls and around campus and hosts general information meetings for students.

The university is reviewing adding an online educational element that students would need to take around the time they matriculate.

Taylor University does not take any religious exemptions on students in the LGBTQ community. As to why the decision was made, Brown said he is unaware due to only being in his current position for three semesters.