Title IX Office sees big changes at University of Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas News

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The University of Arkansas Title IX Office has been busy this year.

Seven rapes and one sexual assault have been reported to the U of A Police Department in 2021. Many of those cases go right to the Title IX Office on campus.

Lately, there’s been a level of mistrust between students and that office.

“(Students) in many ways don’t feel like the Title IX Office is going to be empathetic and compassionate in responding to a survivor,” Student Body President Coleman Warren said. “They may not feel like their incident will be responded to in a timely manner.”

In 2018, a Title IX appeals panel found a former student was responsible for a sexual assault. He sued the university, and this year was given a $20,000 settlement.

Warren says the overwhelming takeaway for students was that the university fumbled the response.

“And then we get this email… that shows this lack of understanding of what victim blaming is,” Warren said. “Or how to talk about sexual assault and orient it toward the perpetrator and not orient it toward the survivor.”

Warren says the Title IX Office did not have enough staff to handle assault allegations effectively.

U of A law professor Danielle Weatherby has worked in Title IX compliance in New York. She says this issue negatively impacts victims.

“In my time representing school districts, I have seen circumstances in which Title IX complaints have been delayed because of a lack of staffing,” Weatherby said.

During those delays, Weatherby says evidence can be lost or forgotten.

Warren and other students demonstrated and petitioned for a larger staff and input on new hires. The university did add more manpower and involved some students in the interview process.

Interim Chancellor Dr. Charles Robinson says he wants the students to see that the school is taking action.

“We take this seriously, and it’s not just rhetorical seriousness,” Dr. Robinson said. “It’s an actual planning and peopling seriousness.”

The university hired a case manager and is looking to add two investigators and an outreach coordinator. The university says the positions will be filled as soon as possible.

It also has a brand new Title IX Coordinator, Dr. Shanita Pettaway. She started in early October and hit the ground running.

“Every area that I see some type of lack, or I see a need, I’m trying to think of different ways and different initiatives that we can implement in order to increase the reach of Title IX across the campus,” Dr. Pettaway said.

While she works to mend her office’s relationship with students, there are other challenges. One is how Title IX complaints are investigated.

The Trump Administration shifted the burden of proof standard in Title IX investigations from a ‘preponderance of the evidence to ‘clear and convincing evidence.’

“I do believe that this heightened burden of proof is more burdensome on victims of sexual assault or gender discrimination,” Weatherby said.

Before the rule change, victims needed to prove that an attack likely happened. Under the new rules, the evidence must prove it with much more evidence.

“It makes it more difficult to prove the case,” Weatherby said. “Especially in a situation when a lot of sexual assault or discrimination complaints are ‘he said, she said.'”

Dr. Pettaway says it’s important to examine every angle.

“In order to ensure due process, it is important that there is that presumption of innocence,” she said.

Moving forward, Dr. Pettaway wants to bridge the gap between students and her office. The new outreach coordinator will work to educate and train students on Title IX.

“I believe that we all work hand in hand,” Dr. Pettaway said. “So with that being said, there has to be open communication.”

That’s what Warren and other students want to see.

“I think that sort of transparency will help and have more support for students,” Warren said.

People from outside the Title IX office might get involved in handling some of the cases. If a complaint makes it to an appeals panel, that panel can include university faculty that are not part of the Title IX Office.

It could also include people from outside the university entirely.

If the complainant is a student, the panel will decide the appeal. If the case involves a university employee, the chancellor or a designee will decide.

Looking ahead — Thursday, October 21 is Purple Thursday, when Dr. Pettaway will be encouraging everyone on campus to wear purple to signify Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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