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Relationship Violence and Title IX

An Interview with Title IX Coordinators Megan Fallon (Clemson University) and Melissa Nichols (Furman University)

Hello readers! My name is Nia Avila. I am one of the new REP (Relationship Education Project) Prevention Coordinators at Safe Harbor. I am super excited to be bringing my experience and passion to the Safe Harbor team.  My love for interpersonal violence prevention began during my sophomore year at Clemson University. It was around this time that I began to see how much sexual assault affected college campuses. According to the Association of American Universities’ 2015 Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, 1 in 4 female undergraduate student respondents experienced some type of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. I decided that I wanted to be a part of the solution to this problem, so I started looking for different ways that I could be involved on campus. I began by participating in the Protect My Clemson Family campaign of 2014, a campus effort to encourage students to be effective bystanders, which was in response to a campus sexual assault that made local news. From there, I joined Clemson University’s Sexual Violence Task Force, served as the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Intern for Healthy Campus and then for the Office of Access and Equity. I spent a lot of time learning about gender based violence, the myths surrounding sexual assault, boundaries that keep survivors from reporting, how to support survivors, and what colleges and universities can do to address the issue.

I began doing this work at a time when campus sexual assault was an especially hot topic in the news. Universities were in the spotlight mishandling sexual assault cases, and violating Title IX mandates. For me, learning about Title IX and rights that students have was integral to the work that I was doing. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (amending the Higher Education Act of 1965) is a federal gender equity law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. 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.”

In April of 2011, a few months before I began my journey as a freshman at Clemson University, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the United States Department of Education published a “Dear Colleague Letter”, which provided guidance to all universities that receive federal funds concerning how to handle sexual assault cases on campus. The guidance told universities that they must use the lowest burden of proof, a preponderance of evidence, in sexual assault cases, and recommended a 60-day limit on investigations. The OCR also recommended that universities provide an appeals process for both parties, and they strongly discouraged universities from cross-examining accusers. This guidance especially supported survivors of sexual assault because it held universities that received federal funds accountable for complying with Title IX mandates.

Title IX also requires that all universities receiving federal funding appoint a Title IX Coordinator who is responsible for coordinating the universities efforts to comply with Title IX, which can include responding to Title IX grievances and training staff responsible for grievance procedures. Many universities have also created positions for violence prevention coordinators, who often work closely with the Title IX Coordinator to educate faculty, staff, and students on Title IX issues. I was recently given the amazing opportunity to interview two people who fill these positions in our community: Melissa Nichols, the Title IX Coordinator and Furman University, and Megan Fallon, the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coordinator at Clemson University.

Melissa Nichols is a graduate of Tulane University and received her law degree from Washington and Lee University School of Law. Before joining Furman University as the Title IX Coordinator, she previously served as the crisis and compliance director and legal counsel to the Julie Valentine Center. Megan Fallon, the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coordinator at Clemson University, received her BA from the State University of New York College at Potsdam, her Masters of Arts degree from Dartmouth College with a focus on Cultural Studies, and also studied Human Rights at Exeter College in Oxford University. She has worked in violence prevention for the last 14 years. Both Megan and Melissa have a wealth of knowledge and experience in the fields of victim services and interpersonal violence education. In this interview, Megan and Melissa were able to share some information about their roles at their respective universities, as well as some insight as to how relationship violence affects college students.

Update: On September 22, 2017, the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter announcing the withdrawal of the 2011 Dear College Letter. Some of the interim guidance includes: permitting schools to adopt a “clear and convincing” standard of proof in sexual assault cases, allowing universities to deny survivors the right to appeal, lifting the prohibition of mediation (instead of a Title IX investigation) and of direct cross examination of survivors, and removing the 60 day time frame to resolve a Title IX investigation.

For more information about this interim guidance, read the Dear Colleague Letter and it’s accompanying Q&A on Sexual Misconduct.

What are some responsibilities of your position at your university?

Melissa: As Furman’s Title IX Coordinator, I oversee the University’s response to any type of sexual misconduct, which includes sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, sexual intimidation, stalking, and intimate partner violence. I provide training to employees about their responsibilities if they become aware of an issue of sexual violence, sexual harassment or intimate partner violence, and I talk with student groups to raise awareness of these issues.  Because intimate partner violence and sexual violence are often underreported, raising awareness of the issues and the availability of help is so important.  I also am responsible for identifying any patterns and using that information to better provide prevention and trainings to address these issues.

Megan: As the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coordinator here at Clemson, I am responsible for educating and training all faculty and staff on Title IX issues, including sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. I also work with the student group It’s On Us, Healthy Campus, Counseling and Psychological Services, local crisis centers, and other campus entities to plan programs for violence awareness months such as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Stalking Awareness Month, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I am also responsible for making sure our processes are trauma informed.

What are some unique challenges that college students face as it relates to relationship violence?

Melissa: The vast majority of college students are between the ages of 18 and 22, which are high-risk ages for relationship violence and sexual violence. Furman has approximately 2,800 students, almost all of whom live on campus.  While being part of a small four-year residential community can be wonderful, it can also present challenges for someone in an abusive relationship if their partner is also a member of that community.  They may encounter that person doing laundry, getting a meal at the dining hall, in class, or in social situations.  In addition, they may have a small or limited social network and may share a friend group with that person.  This can be particularly true in fraternities and sororities, athletic teams and other closed communities.  Sometimes friends may not be supportive of someone who decides to report relationship violence.  While this issue is not unique to college campuses, I think it can be exacerbated on a college campus.  Students often have fairly consistent and predictable routines that may make it easier for someone to predict and monitor their movements.  Students who are living away from home may feel isolated from their support networks, like family.

Relationship violence can disrupt all aspects of someone’s life, and for a college student, that can mean interrupting or even derailing their college career. We try to prevent that from happening by providing the resources and accommodations below.  Some students are afraid to report, because they don’t want their family to know or may even fear that their family will remove them from school.  We do not share information about sexual misconduct and relationship violence reports with family members without a student’s consent.

Megan: I don’t think that we really talk to college students enough about relationship violence. So that if they are experiencing relationship violence, or they think that a friend is experiencing it, it’s more difficult for them to recognize the signs and know the resources that are out there to get help. There is also the layer that for some students, coming to school is the first time they may be away from an abusive home environment.  This latter group of students may for the first time realize that their home life was abusive, may struggle with connecting with others from being so used to being isolated, or struggle with having to return home during breaks.

What should parents of freshman students know about relationship violence before sending their children off to college?

Melissa: I would really encourage parents to talk with their kids openly and honestly about boundaries, consent and healthy relationships, so their sons and daughters know both to communicate their own boundaries and to respect the boundaries of their partner. Parents should talk to their sons and daughters about warning signs of abusive behavior, such as having feelings of low self-worth and helplessness about your relationship; feeling isolated from family or friends because of your relationship; being monitored by your partner and constantly watching what you say to avoid angering your partner.  Often, students report that they were in their first serious relationship and did not recognize the behaviors they were seeing as indicators of an unhealthy relationship.  I also would love to see parents talk to their kids about their rights in college and resources that they can reach out to if they find themselves in an abusive relationship.   

Megan: It happens. Even when you don’t want to believe that it could happen to your kid. Anybody can get into an abusive relationship. One myth about relationship violence is that it only affects “certain kinds of people”, like people from poor families, but the truth is that abusive relationships span across economic class. Unfortunately it could happen to anybody’s kid, and it doesn’t matter how you raised them. So, it is very important to talk to your student early and often about healthy relationships and how to have boundaries.

What resources are available to victims of relationship violence on your campus?

Melissa: Great question! Furman’s counseling center and the student health center are available to all students free of charge.  The Chaplain and Assistant Chaplain can also be good resources.  Those resources are all confidential for students, meaning that they do not report complaints of relationship violence or other sexual misconduct to me.  In addition, students who do want to report relationship violence can speak with me (the Title IX Coordinator) or with a Deputy Title IX Coordinator.  We can talk with them about steps the University can take to help ensure their safety (including trespassing someone from campus or issuing a no contact order if the other person is affiliated with Furman, changing housing assignments or classes of one of the parties or providing other accommodations).  The University also has a process for investigating and adjudicating reports of relationship violence.  If someone reports relationship violence, the University’s focus is on stopping it, preventing it from recurring and remedying the effects. There are many opportunities to become involved in this issue on campus.  Furman is working with the Julie Valentine Center to bring bystander intervention training to Furman, and this training is available to all organizations and individual students.

Furman’s Title IX (http://www.furman.edu/titleix) page provides additional information.

Megan: There are many different resources on campus for students affected by relationship violence. Counseling and Psychological Services at Redfern Health Center is a confidential resource for students, which is covered by the student health fee. Students have the right to report to the Title IX Office if they have been discriminated against based on sex, or has been a victim of sexual harassment, sexual violence, relationship violence, or stalking. Retaliation against an individual who has filed a Title IX complaint is prohibited at Clemson University, so it is possible for someone to be found not responsible for an act, but to be found responsible for retaliation against a complainant. We can also assist students with safety planning, and no contact orders can be done without going forward with any type of student conduct hearing.

Our end game is to make sure students who are impacted by interpersonal violence are able to thrive at Clemson. We have to think of the safety of the entire campus when it comes to Title IX. Our primary goal is to make sure that students can feel safe on campus.

Clemson’s Title IX webpage (http://www.clemson.edu/campus-life/campus-services/access/title-ix/) provides additional information.

Understanding Title IX and the responsibility that schools and universities have to address interpersonal violence on campus may seem overwhelming, but there are many resources available where you can learn more. The 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, which is currently available on Netflix, is an amazing resource for learning about Title IX, as it features the stories of actual college survivors of sexual assault and their journeys to justice. Along with visiting Clemson University’s and Furman University’s Title IX webpages, you can learn more about Title IX by visiting knowyourix.org or the OCR’s Title IX and Sex Discrimination webpage.