Virginia Tech has adjusted its Title IX proceedings to ensure prompt responses and provide supportive services to survivors following the Department of Education’s revisions approved in May.
“The new regulations lay out the framework of what we need to do to respond to sexual harassment when it falls under Title IX,” said Katie Polidoro, director of Title IX Compliance at Virginia Tech. “They prescribed a process for addressing harassment under Title IX which was pretty far outside of the way we would normally do things.”
The revisions change the guidance for how educational institutions respond to potential Title IX violations. With a new definition of sexual harassment, the DOE has created an umbrella for how institutions recognize any misconduct. The changes also expand the geography of Title IX jurisdiction to anywhere within the U.S. in which the university or a recognized student organization holds substantial control. This extension helps to address any on- or off-campus incident such as a varsity football game — home or away — or a school-sponsored conference. Judicial proceedings under Title IX will require live case hearings and cross-examination of both parties.
According to the Department of Education, sexual harassment is considered any form of “unlawful sex discrimination” which includes sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.
“Sexual harassment is any conduct that is either sexually explicit or targeted at someone on the basis of their sex or gender that is severe, pervasive and objectively offensive,” Polidoro said. With the inclusivity of these three principles, the definition can be applied to a larger scope of cases.
In congruence to the DOE’s mandated revisions, Virginia Tech has pursued alternative changes that are unique to the university. The university has adopted the Title IX Sexual Harassment Policy which focuses on any discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, solely applying Title IX law. This policy comes in addition to the university’s already preexisting Policy on Harassment, Discrimination and Sexual Assault.
Polidoro emphasizes that the Policy on Harassment highlights identities Virginia Tech has chosen to protect from discrimination that aren’t necessarily required by any federal civil rights statutes. Some of the identities protected under the Policy on Harassment include the LGBTQ, minority and religious communities. The university responds to any complaint that can be received either directly or indirectly to any administrator with “instructional responsibility” and provides impartial investigations. The separation between sex or gender-related violations versus discrimination on any bias enables the Title IX office to effectively detect cases appropriate for its authority.
Live case hearings and cross-examination mandated by the DOE establish a more thorough and active response by institutions. Hearings and cross-examination will be conducted through selected advisors. The required hearings will continue to be held privately and will not mandate that both parties be in the same room.
Advisors will represent Virginia Tech students, employees or faculty. These individuals can be appointed by the plaintiff or defendant themselves or be presented by external facilities. Polidoro notes the advisor role is completely new and that the office is currently searching to identify folks within the community who are outside of the university for students to be referred to.
Virginia Tech’s Women's Center plans to connect survivors to the sought-out advisors. “Historically, we have served as advisors in student conduct hearings. With the new Title IX changes, the Women’s Center will not be serving as advisors in Student Conduct hearing anymore,” said Christine Dennis-Smith, co-director of services for support, advocacy and educational programs at Virginia Tech’s Women's Center.
Despite the Women’s Center’s adjusted role, it continues to provide a range of services such as coordinating meetings with external advisors and referrals to legal resources. The Women’s Center continues to help accusers navigate their options for reporting and supports them through any options process they choose to participate in, Dennis-Smith added.
Polidoro worked alongside on-campus organizations and representatives to gauge how the federal regulations will impact their communities. Some of the involved members included Student Government Association and the Graduate Student Association.
In these working groups, Polidoro asked how the regulations need to be written so that people understand them. Virginia Tech’s United Feminist Movement was among a few members of the working group who repeatedly asked this question.
“United Feminist Movement really would like to see these changes broken down and put into more comfortable language and given to students rather than these huge policies posted on their website,” said Carolina Bell, a sophomore biology major and communications chair for the United Feminist Movement at Virginia Tech.
Legal jargon can complicate a student or employee’s ability to fully understand how to correctly follow Title IX procedures.
“It should never be on a student or employee, especially one who has experienced trauma, to try and figure out what the right policy is,” Polidoro said.
Resources like the Virginia Tech Women’s Center and Title IX office are available to anyone looking for guidance throughout the entire process.