The Academic Feminist: We Heart Women’s Centers, Part III

UPDATE 11/17/14:

We regret that we did not note that survivors have filed a Title IX complaint and law suit (PDF) against University of Connecticut alleging discrimination in violation of federal law. The UConn Women’s Center’s personnel and conduct is implicated in these legal actions; this interview is not an endorsement of the center.

Welcome back, Academic Feminists. Today we have the last in our three-part series on women’s centers. In this column, I asked Kathleen Holgerson (left), from the University of Connecticut Women’s Center, and Jennifer Graham (right), from Georgia College’s Women’s Center, to discuss the use of Title IX to address gender-based violence on college campuses. 

Gwendolyn: For those who are unfamiliar: just what is Title IX?

Kathleen & Jennifer: Title IX is civil rights law that comes from the Education Amendments of 1972.  In 2002, it was renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act to honor her role as co-author and sponsor. It states that “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 education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” At its core, Title IX requires all educational institutions receiving federal funds, including K-12 and institutions of higher education, to prohibit discrimination based on sex.

There has been a lot of confusion surrounding reporting requirements under Title IX. What is required of faculty/staff? What should you know as a student?

In April 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), which provided guidance for schools and colleges on addressing sexual assault as the most egregious form of sexual harassment, and therefore a Title IX violation. The parameters outlined in the DCL set standards for policy, investigation, standards of proof, and education. It also raised the question for many campuses about which employees should be considered “responsible employees” for the purposes of reporting disclosures of sexual assault by students. When faculty or staff members learn of a sexual assault, the university is “on notice” which means that the university must do something about that incident.

The role of Women’s Center staff relative to confidentiality continues to evolve with additional guidance from the White House Task Force report and the 2014 FAQ’s from OCR. What is required by faculty and staff on a particular campus is determined not only by federal mandate, but by institutional policy. However, this is often further complicated by differing state laws and university policies surrounding who has confidentiality on a college campus. For example, on many campuses all employees (except those who have professional licenses or statutory protections) are considered “responsible employees” and as such are required to report all disclosures of sexual assault to the Title IX Coordinator or another designated official. On some campuses, employees who serve in an advocacy role, such as staff from Women’s Centers, Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Programs, and Wellness and Prevention Programs are required to forward non-identifying information to the designated official.

As a student it is important to be informed about the policies at your institution and to know to whom you can speak confidentially to and who may have to make a report.  If you’re unsure, ask the person what information they are required to pass along. Also, if you have feedback about how to simplify processes, make information more accessible to students, and/or how to promote a more trauma-informed approach, please share that with the staff in your Women’s Center, Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Prevention Programs, or Title IX Office.

How can women’s centers be used as a resource, both by faculty and students, when it comes to protecting students from sexual violence on campus and holding institutions accountable?

Much of the focus has been on the investigation and adjudication of individual complaints. However, Title IX compliance goes beyond adjudication and requires institutions to address prevention and campus climate that promotes sexual harassment. Many Women’s Centers have long served as the site for much of the work around the intervention and prevention of gender-based violence and offer a plethora of resources to their university communities. Their staff can be there as an expert for you on your campus. While not all Women’s Centers are structured the same — all Women’s Centers share a common focus on addressing gender inequity.

As the attention on these issues has increased and as campuses have worked to develop more comprehensive approaches to Title IX compliance, Women’s Center staff have continued to raise several items for continued consideration:

1) The on-going role of Women’s Centers in addressing gender-based violence — Whether institutionally charged as such or not, Women’s Centers are often seen as safe space by survivors of sexual violence and serve as advocates on these issues at both the individual and institutional levels. Our role with individual students can be to provide advocacy as they seek assistance from various resources; to provide information to make informed choices; and to provide support as they engage with various complaint or investigatory processes. Survivors of sexual assault often choose to approach a Women’s Center advocate first, and after becoming more informed about their options and the available resources, are more likely to seek services and/or move forward with formal complaints. Women’s Centers can supplement the menu of resource options and do not require students to go off-campus to seek services or to limit confidential options to counseling.  In addition to victim/survivor advocacy, Women’s Center’s can offer educational programming and professional development training which is informed by our work with survivors and our connections to other colleagues in the field.

2) How the issues are framed — As campuses increase the dialogue on these issues, how they are being framed is often connected to where the prevention and response programs are housed organizationally. The discussion has ranged from these as matters of health and safety to a focus on this as a civil rights issue. While the reality is that it is a combination of all of the above, Women’s Centers’ mission to promote gender equity aligns with the core of Title IX.

3) Advocates and subject matter experts — Women’s Center staff are cognizant of, and supportive of, a college/university’s efforts to balance our obligation to provide for the safety of survivors of sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and stalking, to address threats to the larger campus community, and to fulfill our institutional obligations under Title IX. From our perspective these obligations do not have to be mutually exclusive, and, in fact, institutions that see them as complementary often fulfill both mandates much more successfully. Our work as advocates with individuals informs the professional expertise of Women’s Center staff, however it does not define that expertise. Therefore it is important to invite Women’s Center staff to the table when your institution is creating or revising policy or deciding on prevention programming initiatives. Women’s Centers have been doing anti-violence work for decades and their staff have a wealth of knowledge to draw from.

Kathleen Holgerson is the Director of the University of Connecticut Women’s Center, has been working on addressing gender-based violence since she volunteered at the Women’s Center as an undergrad, and rarely posts on Facebook let alone tweets. 

Jennifer Graham is the coordinator of Georgia College’s Women’s Center and Director of Project BRAVE, the campus’s anti-violence program. She has been working towards gender equity and preventing gender based violence since she helped to form the Women’s Center as an undergrad. She is addicted to Facebook and has tweeted…twice.  

Photo on 2014-06-26 at 12.58Gwendolyn Beetham coordinates this series for Feministing.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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