Richmond became one of the 76 universities under federal investigation June 12 for a Title IX policy complaint, which has prompted university coordinators and administrative officials to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the university’s Title IX procedures.
The investigation indicates that someone filed a formal complaint with the White House Civil Rights office about how a sexual misconduct case was handled. It suggests that at least one person was dissatisfied with the way the case was handled, but does not suggest that any mishandling by the university actually occurred.
Currently, the university’s dean’s offices and Title IX coordinators are providing procedural information to investigators. They are fleshing out exactly how they handle cases, but still do not know which specific case the civil rights office is investigating.
Most of the information investigators have requested pertains to general procedural narratives. They are trying to decipher exactly how the university handles a sexual misconduct report from the minute it comes in to the minute a final decision is made.
“We have complied, and will continue to comply with their requests,” said Kerry Fankhauser, associate dean and Title IX coordinator. “We’ve provided a first wave of information to them, and those have mostly been narratives on our procedures, our training, our processes, on conduct and Title IX.”
The second wave of information investigators have requested is a statistical breakdown of how many sexual misconduct cases have been reported in recent years, Fankhauser said. Associate Dean Dan Fabian, who also serves as Title IX coordinator, is collaborating with Fankhauser to compile that data for investigators.
Sexual misconduct data is gathered and compiled on an annual basis beginning and ending in late August. In analyzing Richmond’s data, Fankhauser and Fabian identified a significant increase in sexual misconduct reports from the 2011-2012 academic year to the 2012-2013 academic year. The reports of non-consensual sexual intercourse, commonly known as rape, leaped from nine in 2011-2012 to 20 in 2012-2013.
Data from 2013-2014 is still being compiled, but as of June 2, 2014, Fankhauser and Fabian have gathered 14 non-consensual sexual intercourse reports. Since Aug. 26, 2014, seven additional sexual misconduct cases have been reported—ranging from harassment to stalking to relationship violence.
In total, 182 sexual misconduct cases have been reported since August 2011. These reports include everything from rape to hazing, relationship violence to sexual exploitation.
Since the mid-1980s, national research has shown that one in four women and one in eight men will be victims of sexual misconduct while attending college. This staggering data counters the perception that a university with a high number of reports has some problem that other universities do not have. The disparity between the national statistics and the number of reports at Richmond contribute to what is known as an “underreporting culture.”
“We have gotten more students who have come forward and reported cases here on our campus as far as investigations that have gone through title IX,” said Patrick Benner, associate dean of Richmond College. “And our numbers there are high, even compared to a lot of our peer schools.”
Benner said the high number of reports at Richmond suggested that the university community was more educated and encouraged to come forward and report than remain silent. Since the one-in-four and one-in-eight national statistics exist, a high number of reports suggest the university administration is getting closer to the root of these cases.
Benner’s position as a conduct dean positions him above Fankhauser and Fabian in the case-handling hierarchy. Once Fankhauser or Fabian receives a report, they conduct a preliminary investigation before passing on their findings to Benner. Benner then conducts his own investigation, and collaborates with Fankhauser and Fabian if necessary, before determining if an accused student is guilty and issuing a sanction.
The administration investigates every sexual misconduct report with a “victim-based approach,” which means that the reporting student governs the legal implications of the case. If a student comes to the administration with a report, it remains wholly up to the victim to involve the police. However, should the police department receive a report directly, they are obligated under Title IX to inform the university.
The victim-based approach aims to encourage students to report violations, especially those students who fear becoming entangled in the legal procedures. For students merely looking for support, this ensures they receive it without a legal investigation occurring.
Elizabeth Curry, who began her tenure as Richmond’s coordinator for sexual conduct in March 2014, said Richmond’s relatively small student population enhanced the underreporting culture faced by universities of all sizes. She said students at smaller universities feared reporting cases because of how it could impact their social circle, class life, or even make retaliation from an accused student easier.
“That’s the culture we need men and women at the University of Richmond to step up and change,” Curry said.
Curry joined the Richmond community last spring when Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University received a $500,000 federal grant to educate and train students, staff and law enforcement about sexual assault, dating and domestic violence and stalking. She serves as both a resource for survivors of sexual assault and a connection between campus offices with a collaborative interest in advocacy and awareness.
Curry is currently meeting with students who have expressed interest in brainstorming ways to combat sexual misconduct and help spread awareness. She said that unfortunately, in many ways college campuses serve as a kind of breeding ground for sexual misconduct to occur, and for the behavior on college campuses to change, the conversation of sexual misconduct must occur more regularly.
“I just think student involvement is the key, because you all are the ones out at the parties and the ones talking to each other,” Curry said.
Based on discussions with colleagues at other universities, Fankhuaser and Fabian estimated the current federal investigation could take years to be completed. However, it does immediately focus attention on an issue that flooded national headlines and media throughout this past summer.
Reports of sexual misconduct and investigations have garnered unprecedented attention in recent months. For the first time in our nation’s history, the president has made the issue of sexual assault on college campuses a priority. Students have invented nail polish to help identify date rape drugs. And comedic news shows are creating parodies of sexual culture on university campuses.
To change the perception of college sexual culture, Curry said she believed we must first change the culture itself.
“Research shows it’s there because of the society we live in. We’re microcosms of our larger society, and so this rape culture that is talked about, there’s a lot that needs to be broken down to get at why that is there.”
Contact staff writer Clayton Helms at firstname.lastname@example.org