How University Title IX Offices Fail Survivors

How University Title IX Offices Fail Survivors

How University Title IX Offices Fail Survivors

In 2014, an investigation by the Department of Education found that Princeton’s response to complaints of sexual violence violated Title IX. How much has changed since?


Fifty years ago, the Senate passed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, providing protections against sexual harassment and other gender-based discrimination at educational institutions. Any school that received federal funding was now legally required to give equal treatment, including in cases involving sexual misconduct. Today, years after the rise of the #MeToo movement, students are still working to hold their schools accountable.

For years, thousands of college students across the country have organized around Title IX reform, demanding that universities take sexual violence and misconduct more seriously. Princeton University is no exception. In 2014, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into Princeton over Title IX complaints, finding that they had “favored the rights of students accused of sexual misconduct over those of the alleged victims.” Students held explosive Title IX protests on Princeton’s campus, culminating in a nine-day-long sit-in outside the president’s office in Nassau Hall. Protesters demanded that the university provide survivors the opportunity to pursue transformative processes of accountability. “Princeton does not uphold equal opportunity to education if it continues to indefinitely, or in any part, condone rape culture and re-traumatize those who have survived violence by subjecting them to grossly misrepresented and subpar procedures,” wrote Princeton IX Now, a student group that pushed for Title IX reform.

In the aftermath of these protests, federal changes to the Title IX process forced Princeton to upend the way it conducts Title IX investigations. “The university had relatively ample time to prepare for these federal changes and institute a more equitable Title IX process,” said KiKi Gilbert, a student activist who later served on the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Climate, Culture, and Conduct, an administrative body within Princeton meant to address sexual discrimination and misconduct on campus.

Today, many survivors are still subjected to months of redundant interviews, cross-examinations, and explanation of textual and other evidence—forcing survivors to relive the traumatic event in great detail over and over again. One step toward trauma-informed investigation would have Title IX follow the guidance of the New Jersey attorney general’s Division of Violence Intervention and Victim Assistance for police investigations of domestic violence and sexual assault, in which survivors’ testimonies are recorded to minimize the redundancy of interviews needed to come to a finding of guilt.

“They made me repeat the full story in extreme detail six separate times when they already had that exact information in the file,” said Hailey Lambert, who recently went through the full Title IX process. Hailey is the sister of Jessica, one of the authors of this piece. “It was really frustrating. The whole process made me feel like they weren’t conscious at all about the victimization and traumatization I was experiencing.”

Another Princeton student, whom we will refer to as Kate, said that in her first meeting with the office, she requested a mediated conversation, mandated therapy, and housing accommodations in lieu of a formally structured disciplinary process. Kate’s request for an alternate resolution was initially rejected by the university. But after eight months of an emotionally difficult investigative process, Kate says that she was retroactively offered the alternative resolution she initially requested and pressured to drop the formal charges. “I was given only a couple days to decide, which was difficult, given the mental state I was in at the time.”

The university framed the situation as an opportunity to support a new path forward for other survivors. “I was given the impression that [the alternate resolution] would not be available [for other survivors if I didn’t pilot it] but never explicitly. They told me, ‘This is your choice, but it’s something that needs to be tried out in order to be an option for others.’” According to the Department of Education, universities “are forbidden from pressuring a survivor into filing or not filing a formal complaint or participating in a grievance process” and must “respect a survivor’s decision to file, or not to file, a formal complaint and must offer supportive measures either way.”

Kate expressed that the primary reason she initially wanted to explore an alternate resolution was to avoid the emotionally intensive and re-traumatizing process of a formal Title IX investigation, which she had now already experienced. By bringing the alternate resolution forward as an option just days before a final determination was decided, the Title IX office demonstrated a lack of regard for her needs. “I think about it regularly, how the case would have gone. In the end, I chose certainty of safety over the possibility of justice.”

Earlier this year, the alternative resolution process was formally adopted by the University. According to Princeton’s Title IX policy, a signed agreement to the alternate process waives the survivor’s right to engage in formal grievance procedures in the future and ends any current investigation. In doing so, this new policy ensures that allegations are never reported in Princeton’s crime statistics. As explained on the Title IX website, “Once the parties have signed the alternate resolution agreement, they are bound by its terms and cannot opt for a formal grievance process based on the conduct that was alleged in the formal complaint.”

While the alternate resolution process may be a preferable option for some, the decision of how to move forward after experiencing sexual misconduct should be entirely up to the survivor, without the pressure of a timeline from the Title IX Office. This decision will likely follow the survivor for the rest of their life and could have safety repercussions, so it is important for it to be fully the survivor’s own. Anything else can replicate the lack of respect for the survivor’s choice that was first denied in the experience of sexual violence.

“I didn’t initially report to Title IX at all. I went to campus safety, who began their own criminal investigation and offered accommodations to go get a restraining order from the municipal courts. Campus safety has to report to the Title IX Office, and they put pressure on me to either formally report or undergo a Title IX investigation,” said Jamie, a Princeton alumna. “My assailant told Title IX that if I didn’t agree to an alternate resolution, he would start his own case against me, which I was informed could interfere with my graduation status and my eligibility for law school next year. Title IX told me I needed to rapidly agree to an alternate resolution, or else I would likely be under investigation for months after my graduation. I felt rushed into a decision that wasn’t really mine, which brought up questions for me about whether the Title IX Office respected my consent anymore than the perpetrator. I just wanted to report to the police to protect other girls in case he did it again, not go through any extended process of back-and-forth with the person who hurt me.”

Even with its flaws, the alternate resolution process still has some benefits over the normal procedures. “I’m glad that the alternate resolution was an option, and I’m thankful to the students before me who advocated for it to be an option. It gave me peace of mind to have a skewed no-contact order, which functioned similarly to a restraining order, where he had to leave places where we both were and he couldn’t enter my building. I also appreciated being able to require that he attend therapy for sex offenders and that I could write an impact statement for his therapist to read. It felt closer to restorative justice than going through with criminal charges or a formal Title IX investigation, which is what I wanted. I felt like I had some control, more than I would with the other options,” said Jamie. “I just wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone else like he hurt me.”

Sexual misconduct on Princeton’s campus is wildly underreported. In 2019, Princeton formally acknowledged just eight instances of “violence against women” on or near campus in its crime statistics, and only 26 sexual misconduct cases were adjudicated through the formal process. These numbers do not match the reality on campus. According to a We Speak report from 2017, 16 percent of Princeton students reported experiences of sexual misconduct in some form during that academic year.

Why such a discrepancy? The answer is simple: The Title IX reporting process is complex, rigorous, and emotionally trying, which disincentivizes survivors from reporting. Both authors experienced sexual misconduct at Princeton and have worked with the Title IX office, and both decided not to pursue formal charges after hearing from peers of how intense and often re-traumatizing the process was for them. Intentionally or not, this design keeps formal reports of sexual misconduct—and therefore, crime statistics—low, protecting both the university’s reputation and perpetrators. Many times, interrogations turn to emotionally charged discussions of identity, trauma, and other personal topics unrelated to the actual determination of guilt.

“We recognize that it is difficult for individuals to discuss these issues. However, it is necessary, in the course of investigative interviews and the hearing (both of which are required under regulations and our policies), to ask both parties intimate and specific questions,” wrote Michael Hotchkiss, Princeton’s director of media relations, when asked for comment. Representatives from Princeton’s Title IX office failed to respond. “Our investigators and adjudicators are trained in asking such questions in a trauma-informed way.”

Trauma-informed care involves approaching sensitive topics and information through empathy and understanding, informed by psychological research on best practices for working with people who have experienced traumatic events. For instance, a trauma-informed investigation would encourage investigators to be patient with survivors while collecting testimony and in cross-examination, and to ask questions in a way that recognizes the fact that traumatic memories are often encoded as fragmented and nonlinear. Many of the people we spoke with, however, expressed that the Title IX office’s approach to investigations and reporting was insensitive. Hotchkiss failed to elaborate on what measures were implemented to ensure a trauma-informed approach is taken for interviews and hearings.

“There was an interview where I was being told what my assailant said to justify his violence against me, to rationalize why I must have consented. I was told that if I did not answer, I would have no chance to correct the record and they must take what he said at face value. If he said I was known for sleeping around and being slutty, they were allowed to ask if it was true…even though by law they couldn’t make a decision based on past sexual history,” said Kate, another Princeton student. She explained a loophole in the law, which allowed the investigators to ask questions about her sexual history if a defendant brings it up. “I wanted to be honest, maintain my position, to stay true to my convictions that my sexual history should have no bearing on their judgment. I was put in a position to either agree with version of my sexual history by the person who assaulted me, or implicitly agree. That was one of the most hurtful parts of this process for me.”

Activists know there is room for improvement. One proposal would be to provide the option for a trained advocate—unaffiliated with the Title IX Office—to be available as a resource for the complainant to monitor interviews and intake appointments, if so desired by the survivor. This advocate would be knowledgeable about survivors’ rights, what can and cannot be asked of a survivor, and trained in recognizing administrative coercion. Having a non-Princeton-affiliated third party present to ensure that survivors’ rights are respected could also help mitigate conflicts of interest—including a stake in the university’s reputation and thus hesitance to validate allegations of violence at Princeton, or personal connections with reported offenders.

There is already a system in place for trained volunteer advocates to support survivors in court, at police departments, and hospitals through a local nonprofit called Womanspace. This could serve as a model for trained volunteer Princeton students trained by the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education office and Counseling and Psychological Services, perhaps also in partnership with existing Womanspace programming. A similar effort is already in place for students undergoing investigation for alleged violations of the University Honor Code, in which trained “Peer Representatives” support students through the process, adding added accountability for decision-makers and investigators. Including optional, trained peer representatives as a resource for survivors and alleged perpetrators alike could help to facilitate a fairer process with greater accountability.Investigations should be held to a high standard focused on facts, not using outdated and harmful lines of logic to place blame on the survivor.

Instead of relying so heavily on in-depth, repeated disclosure of the traumatic events for hours on end, which can be emotionally exhausting and difficult for survivors, testimonies should be given and recorded a single time by investigators to limit redundancy, and frequent and unconditional breaks to recollect and regulate emotions ought to be provided. Additionally, trauma-informed, therapeutic support should be readily available after difficult parts of the hearings, with counselors specifically trained in sexual and interpersonal violence. True trauma-informed investigation is sensitive to the immense difficulty and emotional weight of the initial experience of sexual violence and subsequent reporting—and given the accounts shared with us, this is evidently not the case at Princeton.

Universities should work to ensure that intersectional forms of abuse—including racism, homophobia, and transphobia—are considered and that appropriate care is taken to address intersectional identities that exacerbate the difficulty of reporting. This involves having trained counselors with diverse identities available to survivors, as well as specialized training for Title IX staff and investigators on intersectionality. “Testimonies from students in spring of 2019 showed that Black students and LGBT students in particular reported facing racism and discrimination in the Title IX process,” according to Princeton Title IX Now.

But accommodations for the survivor must also be in place to protect them from retaliation and continued abuse. No survivor should be made to wait for either an alternate resolution or a finding of guilt to receive accommodations for safety—such as a restraining order, a no-contact order, or changed housing. As of now, Princeton-specific accommodations are conditional upon reporting to the Title IX office and undergoing a formal or alternate resolution. Without going through the Title IX office, Princeton will not grant a skewed no-contact order and it is rare to be granted a room change—even if you are living with the perpetrator. Instead, these accommodations should be quickly available through reporting to campus safety, a director of Student Life, Counseling and Psychological Services, or the SHARE office.

According to another Princeton student, who wishes to remain anonymous, the university failed to adequately respond when a victim of domestic violence was living with their perpetrator. “I needed a room change to get myself out of an abusive situation, but I knew filing a Title IX or even pursuing an informal resolution would likely put me in more danger. Despite working with my DSL, CPS, and SHARE, it took four months for me to get a room change. All the while the university left me in an abusive situation and didn’t treat the room change with any sense of urgency. I only got changed after emailing the dean of the college and a vice president pleading for help—an extreme that no student should have to resort to just to be safe.”

The Title IX office should be a trauma-informed resource for survivors even as it seeks to fairly adjudicate allegations of sexual misconduct. Instead, it centers around questions of liability and reputation, rather than justice and care for survivors. Beyond Princeton’s failure to provide real change with respect to Title IX, students nationally continue to protest, with similar shortcomings persisting at schools across the country. Princeton is not alone, but the university has the opportunity to lead on this important issue of sex discrimination and violence against its students in a time where the enforcement of Title IX law continues to be inadequate.

This year, the Biden administration proposed expanding Title IX protections—after Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration largely diminished them—to include more explicit support for the rights of LGBTQ+ students along with a broadened definition of sexual misconduct and harassment. These steps are a start, but without adequate enforcement measures to ensure that universities take the requirements seriously, expansion of Title IX will not be nearly enough.

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