Michael Dunn, the College’s Title IX Coordinator, had good news to report to the Student Government Association on April 16. Overall responses to the Campus Climate Survey, which was distributed in Fall of 2019, show that students perception of the Title IX office have improved since last year’s numbers saw a significant drop.
Analysis of the data was performed by the Office of Institutional Research, according to Dunn, who added “it was nice deferring to their expertise to make sense of all the data.” White and female students were overrepresented among respondents, compared to campus demographics.
The 2018 survey saw a decline in the way students perceive campus culture, a negative trend which continued in this years survey, according to Dunn, though he added that “It’s really an increase in neutral responses rather than negative responses, so [the decline] is not necessarily reflecting a strong rise in negative feelings.”
According to Dunn, the data does not suggest significant differences in perception across race, though there was a major difference by gender on the safety questions, with female students responding that they feel less safe on campus than their male counterparts, which is generally the expected finding. “The other big difference” according to Dunn, though, “was that upper-class students reported generally more negative perceptions than other students. Seniors were less happy than first years and sophomores, seniors or juniors felt less close to people than first years, and seniors feel less safe than first years. So that was pretty interesting.” Dunn says that he’s concerned with the negative trend the survey responses have taken in the past years, and is working with Student Affairs to delve deeper into the data.
The Institutional Research Office reported that the top reason students feel unsafe on campus, as reported in the open responses to the survey, is areas of darkness, followed by perceived insufficient consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence. Dunn hopes to address the lighting issue soon, and says that “in terms of the concern about consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence, that’s a concern that’s been expressed a lot, and that’s something that we have changed our trainings to try to address, and we’ve tried to have that knowledge inform the way we do resource posters and all these things to share information about what’s happening.”
Continuing to speak to the perception that consequences for perpetrators were not severe enough, Dunn stated “It’s a challenge, though. That’s one of the abiding challenges, I think in conducting Title IX work on a campus, especially a small campus like ours, where we’re not at liberty to share with the general audience like ‘here’s what happened and why’, or ‘here’s what didn’t happen and why’. We can’t tell you when someone wants to remain confidential, or we can’t tell you when someone wants to not pursue action, and we choose to honor that choice. So it’s a challenge.” The office does release information on the cases it heard, how they were handled, what sanctions were taken against responsible parties, and why, though this information is not available until the semester after it is collected.
“What was really positive is that the questions on perceptions of Title IX issues rebounded and moved up”, Dunn says, after a dip in the numbers last year. It’s especially impressive considering the declining perceptions of campus safety overall. “There’s definitely work to be done,” he stated, “but I was really thankful and relieved to see that the numbers were moving in a positive direction compared to last year.”
One major piece of data from the survey is the raw number of students reporting whether or not they have experienced sexual misconduct during their time at the College, regardless of whether or not they chose to report. “For this year’s data, 23 percent of female participants and 10 percent of male participants said they’ve experienced some kind of sexual violence,” Dunn reported, and while that might sound bad, St. Mary’s numbers “reflect the research and overall prevalence of this epidemic on campuses everywhere”. Dunn noted that Duke made headlines this year when they reported that 48% of their female undergraduate students reported experiencing sexual violence. Interestingly, this year’s data does not support the “red zone” model, where the first six weeks of the fall semester see the highest rates of sexual misconduct of the academic year.
The College also got a 5 year grant to prevent sexual assault through social norms change, from the Rape and Sexual Assault Prevention Program, a part of the Center for Injury and Sexual Assault Prevention, under the Maryland Department of Health. The College has received funding from this program before, which it used to bring “A Call to Men” to campus in previous years. Now, the program will return to campus every semester for the next five years. “We have commitments from the athletics department and student affairs where we’re going to be doing ongoing targeted programming with a bunch of the men’s sports teams and Dorchester Residence Hall… When we look at the research on what prevention is effective, reaching folks within their communities and having communities reinforce preventative notions like consent, rejecting rape culture, all those things- it helps to have it reinforced by your cohort.”
Some of the funding from the grant will be used to support St. Mary’s Projects on related topics in the coming years. The Office of Title IX is also in the process of selecting a new Title IX investigator/ prevention specialist, who Dunn hopes will start over the summer.
Laws around the way Title IX coordinators operate are changing as well. One of the biggest changes includes that MHEC will pay for lawyers for all students involved in sexual assault cases. Though it doesn’t necessarily change the procedure here on campus, Dunn expressed concerns that the new policy may make the process more stressful, or potentially delay progress on cases while waiting for outside attorneys to be assigned to students or travel to campus.
Another big change includes reports on the credibility of everyone involved, which may in some cases make clear before the resolution of a case what the end will look like. One new policy works to end victim-blaming responses by clarifying when and how students sexual histories can be used as evidence in a case. These changes will go into effect on July 1.
Dunn also spoke about the potential for sweeping change in the near future, once the Trump administration publishes its new guidelines for handling title IX cases. He said that “the Trump administration is moving in the direction of much stronger protections for accused students rights, and the revisions seem to be coming from the perspective that accused students rights are not being respected, and a lot of people would disagree with that.” Dunn went on to say that “The biggest change with the Trump piece is that they are proposing to require that schools use a hearing model (as opposed to a civil rights model) and that they allow direct cross examination of the parties… If that happened, then our biggest challenge would be how to implement those policies in the most fair and compassionate and appropriate way for our community.”
Dunn also expressed concern about the possible effect this shift would have on report statistics, saying “I worry that having a hearing, knowing that cross examination would be part of the process, might be a really strong deterrent from people coming forward with cases. Or, think about a situation where the college might have information about a case, and we feel compelled to go forward with it because we’re worried about a pattern of behavior, because there have been multiple incidents, perhaps we have a really detailed public safety report- and so we’re doing investigation, but people choose not to participate. How does that affect our ability to move forward? I’m really concerned about that.”
Cases will still follow a civil rights model until Trump’s guidelines are officially released, which there is no set date for at this time. Dunn hopes to create policies that will “withstand changes in the political winds”, so that policy won’t need drastic revision under every new presidential administration.
“I’m really concerned about the partisan nature of this”, Dunn added, stating that “sexual violence education and prevention is not a democratic or a republican issue, and it really concerns me when this issue becomes a partisan football, because I think it makes it harder for us to come together to affect the cultural change we need to to actually address this.”