On March 30, 2016, Madeline Wilson ’16 and the Gray Shirt team donned their “Ask how my college is protecting my rapist” T-shirts and sparked a campus-wide debate on how the College handles sexual assault cases. Since then, the College’s Title IX policy has experienced a massive overhaul. Now, national changes may impact St. Olaf’s policy.
On Sept. 22, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) – the arm of the Department of Education that handles Title IX policy – sent out a letter rescinding Obama-era Title IX guidelines, including letters from 2011 and 2014. The now-retracted suggestions established standards that required schools to complete sexual misconduct investigations within 60 days and use a “preponderance of evidence” or “more likely than not” standard for rulings.
While some schools have resisted rolling back these guidelines, St. Olaf is already in compliance with the new standards.
“None of the new guidance or anything the OCR is pointing to is inconsistent with our current approach,” said Carl Lehmann ’91, Vice President and General Counsel for the College.
It’s true. In regards to the time limit, current St. Olaf policy states that the College strives to complete investigations within 60 days, but will extend that period if necessary. Violation of the former 60 day rule is one of the charges filed against the College in an ongoing investigation by the OCR.
“One of the allegations against the school is that we didn’t complete our investigation within 60 days. We took 72 days,” Lehmann said. “We never felt like that was something to be concerned about. We thought it was more important to get it right than to get it done within 60 days.”
Still, it is unlikely the school will change its policy of striving to complete investigations in under 60 days.
“At the moment we are anticipating we will keep our current policy,” Vice President for Mission and Title IX Coordinator Jo Beld said. “It has worked well for us. When you think about 60 days, it’s a half a semester, and that’s a very long time for students to be in that situation of being in an investigation.”
The rollbacks could also affect St. Olaf’s standard of evidence.
“Under the new guidance, schools can either adopt a preponderance of evidence or a clear and convincing evidence standard,” Lehmann said. “Right now we are in compliance with our preponderance of evidence standard.”
The clear and convincing standard is not required by law and would require more evidence of guilt before making a final determination. Whether St. Olaf will keep its old standard or adopt a new one is not something that will be decided without student feedback.
“On Thursday, Oct. 19, during community time, we will have the beginning of that conversation with a general question and answer [session],” Beld said. “Go over what this guidance is, what we are going to do and then give people a chance to ask questions.”
While St. Olaf is in agreement with these guidelines, the College will always avoid conflicting with OCR guidance.
“We’re going to make sure we are in compliance, because being able to participate in federal financial programs is vital. If our students can’t participate in those programs, we’re out of business,” Lehmann said.
Being found non-compliant with OCR standards triggers a sequence of events in which a school would be asked to change the policy. If an institution were to refuse to change its policies and ignore letters of Finding and Enforcement Action, then its students would be disqualified from federal aid programs. This includes grants, student work support, student loans and parent loans. At St. Olaf, these federal programs provide over $15.6 million.
Beld and Lehmann also clarified these recommendations are interim guidance and that they do not necessarily reflect a permanent policy change.
“Since we don’t know what that final outcome is going to look like, we don’t think it will serve our community well if we make a change now, and then maybe the new final guidance will be different in some ways,” Beld said.
Instead of focusing on ongoing policy changes, the College looks to training and prevention as the next step. They have begun by expanding training for first-year students beyond the previous online training.
“This year in particular we’ve been investing a lot of time and energy thinking about prevention and education, and we’ve got now a subcommittee of the Title IX team that includes people who are not on the Title IX team to wrap our heads around a coherent and systematic approach that is infused throughout the student experience,” Beld said.
These changes are in part informed by the Title IX Advisory Group, formed as a response to the Title IX Working Group. It consists of representatives from Student Government Association, the Sexual Assault Resource Network (SARN), Gay, Lesbian or Whatever (GLOW), the Student Life Committee, a college pastor, the Wellness Center director and a senior female administrator from athletics. Every year this group takes in feedback from the student body and offers recommendations. Following the massive overhaul in the summer of 2016, this summer’s changes were less substantive.
“It was more adjusting organization, making sure that, wherever possible, we were using plain language and not legal jargon, making sure that we eliminated any gender bias – we wanted to use gender neutral language,” Beld said.
Still, the College believes that students feel more comfortable using the school as a resource in situations of sexual assault than they had before, as evidenced by this year’s record of reports.
“They show increase in reports of sexual misconduct, which I would take as a good sign, because I don’t think that means there’s been an increase in the number of incidents on campus, I think there has been an increase in people on campus who feel comfortable reporting it to us,” Lehmann said.
An upcoming HEDS survey will explore student perception of how the College deals with sexual assault. This report will be released soon with feedback from the college.
“The main takeaway is that St. Olaf looks like the other institutions,” Beld said.
Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the process by which the federal government could remove funding for not adhering to Title IX guidelines. It has been updated to reflect the complexity of the process.