Trigger Warning: Discussions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence and Title IX.
Editor's note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.
Betsy DeVos’ new Title IX rules were devastating to survivors. Given the restrictions of federal law, harm reduction was left in the hands of institutions, which have not prioritized survivors historically. While students spent last year in a power struggle for accountability in cases of interpersonal violence on campus from upper administrators, UT’s Title IX office has remained committed to creating the best possible system to improve student safety. Additionally, these changes reflect the recommendations of Husch Blackwell, the firm hired to handle changes to misconduct policies following student call to action.
Despite the tough talk about “due process” in the new rules, in actuality they leave the burden on survivors to prove their experience is worthy of the system’s attention. Rather than believing survivors and guiding them through a process toward healing and accountability, the Title IX rules focus on what evidence survivors don’t have and systematically help perpetrators avoid accountability.
Under the new regulations, the scope of Title IX has been limited. Not only has the definition of interpersonal violence that qualifies for Title IX investigation been narrowed, but only on-campus or University-sponsored events where Title IX behaviors occur can result in an official investigation. As the majority of interpersonal violence occurs off campus, this restricted definition will result in fewer survivors having the ability to initiate a formal complaint and hold perpetrators accountable within the system. However, in response to these limitations, UT Title IX has created an identical process to compensate for investigations that do not fall under the federal rules.
Another addition to the Title IX rules is the option for “Informal Resolution.” Historically, UT’s “restorative justice” option for informally resolving Title IX cases has failed to serve students, and survivors have said they felt robbed of accountability and closure. As a result of the recent changes the University committed to a full-scale Restorative Practices (RP) program for complaints that fall under a specific category. This commitment to restorative justice at UT comes after months of student effort and millions of dollars spent on Husch Blackwell. Our work as advocates and the administration’s work as leaders of this institution doesn't stop at a commitment. Restorative justice needs to both address the harm inflicted on survivors and prioritize their individual needs. Not every sexual misconduct case will be the same and not every survivor will want or need the same things. UT must invest in this program rather than apply another Band-Aid solution.
We have to hold UT accountable to continuous change and action that serves survivors. Like most standard punishment systems, Title IX forces survivors into a universal process, when the experience of interpersonal violence is anything but ubiquitous. The responsibility of fighting for processes that prioritize survivors shouldn’t be put on students. The fact that this fight has been an uphill battle against an administration that should be protecting us is unacceptable. UT’s Title IX changes are a small step toward moving beyond systems that cause further harm to survivors, but the progress made shouldn’t end there.
Epstein is a Cellular and Molecular Biology junior and a Student Government Interpersonal Violence Prevention Policy Director. McKinzie is an international relations and global studies junior and a Student Government Interpersonal Violence Prevention Policy Director.