KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Michael Williams wants his young college students to feel they can come to him for help.
He’s eager to guide them while working on an assignment or offer a sympathetic ear when things go sour in their personal lives.
But if they confide something to the University of Kansas journalism professor about sexual harassment or worse? “I have said to the student, ‘I’m really sorry this happened, but if you tell me more details, I have to report this’” to others on campus, said Williams, president of KU’s University Senate. “Sometimes, the student goes ahead and tells you everything anyway. They’re seeking an adult they can trust. …
“But I’ve had students say, ‘I don’t want anyone else to know.’ They don’t tell you anything more. That’s when the situation gets a little gray.”
And, say faculty at a number of colleges, a student who can’t tell a professor something in confidence might not tell anybody.
Those same professors embrace the need to track sexual harassment and assaults, to better root out campus rapists and to get a student help in a time of crisis.
Yet some say a student looking for a familiar person to confide in might clam up if that means hearing from some other college official — no matter how kind that third party might be.
“I want to help that student,” Williams said. “But if the first thing out of their mouth is ‘I don’t really want to report this,’ what do you do?”
The federal government continues to pressure college campuses to make sure that women, in particular, can pursue their studies safe from sexual harassment and assault.
That’s long been enshrined in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibiting sex discrimination on campus. Title IX may be best known for how it remade college sports by demanding that women get the same chance at athletic scholarships as men.
But increasingly it’s also grown as a tool to fight campus rape. Washington puts ever more exacting demands on schools to better document all manner of assault and harassment.
New federal requirements kicked in over the summer that demand schools beef up both training for students and efforts to report potential Title IX violations.
That followed a stern reminder issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office in 2011 widely interpreted on campuses to mean that — with a few deliberate exceptions — virtually anyone working for a university must alert administrators about suspected cases.
That’s why Williams feels obligated to warn students that telling him about a date that turned violent or a relationship that’s become abusive means he must tell others.
Angela Speck, who teaches astrophysics at the University of Missouri, is an outspoken advocate for logging assault cases. Such reporting, after all, can reveal where and how problems happen. And she speaks enthusiastically about various caring and competent professionals on campus ready to help someone who’s been attacked.
Still, she said, few students already know those professionals.
“That’s great if you know about it, if you feel comfortable dealing with absolute strangers,” Speck said.
Maybe, she said, at least one professor in a department should be left off the hook on reporting so students can confide in a familiar face.
“Otherwise,” she said, “how can you have a conversation in confidence if you know that you’re talking to a mandatory reporter?”
Research shows that college students might actually come under sexual attack slightly less than their peers who aren’t in school, but their age group stands particularly vulnerable to such assaults.
Campuses can be boozy places populated by people new to a certain freedom that puts them at added risk.
Although a Rolling Stone article about a supposed gang rape at the University of Virginia was ultimately discredited, it touched a nerve with its criticisms of how universities sometimes flub reports of assault.
The University of Missouri came under fire in the wake of Sasha Menu Courey’s suicide in 2011. She wrote in a journal, found after her death, that she was raped. When the university found her rape allegations in emails after her death, an independent law firm concluded last year, MU should have launched an investigation.
Meantime, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill has been pursuing legislation to toughen campus standards for assault prevention training, counseling efforts and clearer adjudication measures. Last year, her office released a survey that concluded many schools fall short in how they investigate and resolve such claims.
This year, stories about legislators hitting on college interns working at the Missouri Capitol led to the resignation of the speaker of the House and a Kansas City area senator. That, in turn, sparked some alarms at colleges with students interning in Jefferson City.
“Since those stories in Jeff City broke, we added some more Title IX training,” said Bill Horner, an MU political science professor who conducts independent study courses with legislative interns in the state capital and Washington, D.C.
Those various developments further propelled efforts on campuses to live up to Title IX requirements. Failing to do so would put federal funding, critical to any college, at risk.
The National Institute of Justice found about 3 percent of women told surveyors they’d been subject to anything from rape to some form of unwanted touching in the last year. Research suggests the danger is greater for women this time of year, particularly if it’s their first semester on campus.
So all freshmen and incoming students at the MU system’s four campuses this year must complete “Not Anymore” training. It reminds guys that a drunk woman is in no position to consent to sex, coaches bystanders how to step in to stop a dodgy situation, and pitches all range of campus services to those who come under assault.
Online software training given to all new students mixes videos and quizzes that can take an hour or more to complete. Those who don’t finish the training can’t register for classes next semester.
The videos use how-to skits paired with often emotional testimonials from people who were raped.
“Consent must be the presence of yes … enthusiastic consent. If someone isn’t actively participating, they’re not consenting,” say the actors. “And remember, consent cannot be given by a person who is underage, drunk, drugged or mentally impaired.”
The software can run the college $5,000 to $10,000 a year, depending on the number of students and how much a campus wants to customize off-the-shelf material.
With growing pressure to live up to Title IX rules, sales are booming.
“We certainly increased the number of campuses we’re working for,” said Brian Cooley, the chief marketing officer of EverFi, which counts Emporia State University, Missouri State University, Central Missouri University and a handful of others in the region among 800 schools on its client list.
Some students grouse about the training as yet another bureaucratic chore, Title IX officers at Missouri and Kansas schools say. A handful, said Mikah Thompson of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, worry that watching the videos will make them revisit a trauma. Typically an email to her office will get them an exemption.
“But we get a lot of feedback from people who say they’re glad somebody’s talking about this,” she said.
Campus Title IX officers talk passionately about requiring professors to pass on tips about possible cases of harassment or assault. For starters, they read the federal Clery Act, which requires campuses to openly document crime, to include faculty among those with “significant responsibility” for students to be among mandatory reporters.
More practically, they argue that without professors in the mix, much might go unnoticed.
They also argue that professors become less anxious about their role when they understand that making a call to a Title IX office doesn’t necessarily trigger a large-scale investigation.
“There may be misconceptions with faculty about what it means,” said Ellen Eardley, the Title IX administrator at MU. She was hired after MU elevated the job to a full-time position following the Menu Courey case. “They’re connecting students with a central resource that can explain their options and what’s available.”
A report from a professor typically means the student will get a phone call, said Sally Herleth, the executive director of human resources at Truman State University.
“We’re just letting them know what we can do for them,” she said, “and what their options are.”
Most cases come directly from students, Herleth said. But she’s fielded three reports from faculty so far this fall, including a student who spoke to one faculty member about an unwelcome hug from another instructor.
The key to tracking problems, said Missouri State Title IX coordinator Jill Patterson, “is that students feel comfortable” getting help.
Title IX coordinators, said Kansas State University math professor Andrew Bennett, “are better at this job than I am.”
“But sometimes a student says, ‘I’m comfortable with this person,’” said Bennett, the president-elect of the K-State Faculty Senate. “‘Maybe I want to talk privately about it with my teacher. But if I speak to the teacher about this, suddenly it’s going to get out of my control.’ … We’d like it to be an option. We don’t want to put up walls between us and the students.”
Or, as former Faculty Senate president Dave Rintoul said, “Those are serious decisions. I don’t want to make those (reporting) decision for those kids.”
Other professors don’t see much chilling effect from the requirement, partly because they say students in crisis share their problems because they’re seeking just the sort of help a Title IX report would bring forward. And many students may not be reluctant to share things with a professor because they don’t realize that instructor is required to share it with others.
“I’m many other things to them first,” said Richard Sonnenmoser, who teaches creative writing at Northwest Missouri State University. “I’m a writing teacher and something of an authority figure and a lot of other things. … Students may not know about mandatory reporting.”
At Missouri State, theater professor Carol Maples is the artistic director of the Giving Voice drama troupe, which performs interactive scenes in which actors explore how to navigate various scenarios. Recently, it developed a performance to help faculty spot students who might be dealing with an assault or a troubled relationship.
“I’m hearing some questioning on whether they should and how they should handle” Title IX reporting, she said.
Maples believes faculty should be required to share potential cases students share with them.
“I have concerns that students might stop talking,” she said. “(But) it puts faculty into the position where you must do something. That’s important.”
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