November 21, 2017

Webster Title IX policy under review

Webster University is vowing not to be weakened by the new federal guidelines regarding discrimination based on sex. U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, rescinded the Obama-era guidelines on resolving complaints of violations under Title IX on September 22.

Betsy Schmutz, the university Title IX Coordinator, said Webster has a strong policy against sexual offenses and the new guidelines will not subside Webster’s efforts and procedures in handling alleged violations.

“I don’t think that what’s happening at the federal level today will impact the seriousness in which Webster addresses sexual offenses in our community,” Schmutz said. “I don’t think it will diminish it.”

Only one rape incident was reported in the past three years according to Webster’s recently released annual security report. Five fondling cases, eight dating violence, five domestic violence and 21 stalking cases were also reported. The rape incident took place in 2016.

Rape is the most under-reported crime according to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). A 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Justice estimated 80 percent of student victims do not report their rape or sexual assault.

The U.S. government conducted 441 college investigations for possible mishandling reports of sexual violence, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. 84 cases have been resolved and 357 remain open. Washington University in St. Louis has two open cases. Webster is not on the list.

The Department of Education issued interim guidance in the form of questions and answers to clarify the ways Title IX is administered. The guidance will eventually be replaced by regulations and laws after inputs from experts and the public.

One of the key changes regards the burden of proof and the standards used when adjudicating sexual-assault cases. The interim guidance suggests schools may use either the “preponderance standard” or the “clear and convincing standard”. The 2011 Obama letter told educational institutions to use the preponderance of evidence standard.

The preponderance standard is a lower level of burden of proof, a “more-likely-than-not” standard. Schmutz said it means the university makes its decision on what is more than 50 percent.

“So if you’re weighing the evidence and your hands are equal today and someone drops a feather in your left hand, just adds a little bit more weight to it then that’s more than 50 percent,” Schmutz. “And so that’s the way your decision will go in determining whether an individual is found in violation of our policy or not.”

The “clear and convincing standard” is a medium level of burden of proof and is more strict to meet than the preponderance standard. It requires more evidence to make a case stronger.

“This evidence means that what’s presented during a situation must be highly and substantially more probable to be true than not true,” Schmutz said. “So you’ve got the difference between just barely tipping the scale and substantially tipping the scale.”

Webster has been using the preponderance standard of evidence, which aligns with the student code of conduct and other disciplinary matters. Schmutz said it is up to the school to choose what standard of proof it will use. This is one of the decisions Webster will make as it reviews the current policy.

“The new guidelines are in effect today,” Schmutz. “We have not, for example, changed our standard of evidence because there’s nothing that says we have to do that today. But because the guideline says there’s an option, we’re considering that.”

Colleges are allowed to use mediation as an informal resolution process under the new guidance as long as all parties voluntarily agree. Mediation is an informal way to resolve disputes with a trained mediator to facilitate the development of a shared and mutually acceptable solution. The Obama-era guidance said mediation was not appropriate, even on voluntary basis.

Mediation is not facilitated under Webster’s current policy, but will be considered as the school reviews the policy. Schmutz said mediation might be an appropriate alternative in some cases.

“I can think of some situations where I don’t think mediation would necessarily be appropriate,” Schmutz said. “There can be some situations where if mediation was forced on people, I think it could be horrendous. But there are other situations where mediation might be a viable solution if everybody involved agrees to it without pressure.”

Webster’s statement said the university has continued to rigorously review its policies in compliance with federal guidelines and has implemented stronger educational programs for students, faculty and staff.

Schmutz said Webster has conducted  more training for sexual offense advocates, counselors and professionals as well as students since the 2011 Obama guidance was implemented. Webster has a dedicated page on its website with resources and information about Title IX violations. April of every year is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, with events to spread campus-wide education and promote prevention.

“We have become more active and more physically committed to the tenants of Title IX,” Schumtz said.

Webster will review the policy and make corrections within 30 days, according to Schmutz. Webster will continue to provide resources and support for both parties involved in any allegations of sexual misconduct. Webster’s procedures will not change if any complaints are reported before the revision is done, as Title IX is still on the books as a law.

“There’s nothing that’s happened with what’s come out of the federal government that tells us we have to weaken our policies,” Schumtz said. “And we’re not going to.”

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