"The System Is Broken": An Experience With the Title IX Process

The system is broken.  In Spring of 2013, better known as The Spring of Our Discontent, students at Swarthmore protested the failings of the administration.  One of those failings was in their response to Title IX violations. Outrage among the student body inspired a federal investigation was started into the school and how they handled reports of sexual assault,. The school, in response to the investigation and the protests, promised to change. Thus was born the Title IX House and all of its staff and resources. Yet the system is still broken. Students seeking justice are left to navigate a lengthy process that leaves them more traumatized and tempts them to drop their cases.  When students can’t turn to investigation and adjudication for justice, they become afraid to make complaints and those who have started the process withdraw, leaving the accused free of fault and to stay in our campus community.

“Swarthmore College is committed to providing an environment free of discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault, relationship (dating and domestic) violence, and stalking. The College provides resources and reporting options to students, faculty, and staff to address concerns related to sexual harassment and sexual violence prohibited by Title IX and College policy, and works to prevent its occurrence through training and education.”

-   Swarthmore College Title IX Office

 

I feel angry.

I am not a person inclined toward anger.  I do not feel it easily.  Generally speaking, I am a happy and forgiving person.

But that has changed. I am angry.

Weirdly enough, the actual incident that led me to contact Title IX is irrelevant to this story. Nevertheless, this semester, I filed an official complaint with Title IX. I couldn’t stand the idea of what happened to me happening to someone else and, in my gut, I couldn’t avoid the nauseating feeling that it would.

When I filed, I met with the previous Title IX Coordinator. I was so happy to have her;she was kind, welcoming, and supportive. She was a great support person and helped me to feel comfortable and confident in my decision. But, as you probably know, she left. They appointed an interim, but I didn’t really feel the need to meet her because my case was already underway and I had a marvelous support in my case manager and advisor.

For those who don’t know, this process begins with PubSafe interviews. These interviews collect the stories of both sides and of “witnesses.”  Obviously, all of these stories are collected separately.  Though these interviews are a lot–stressful, awkward, uncomfortable, a tiny bit re-traumatizing–I actually felt okay. I felt like things were going well. Despite occasional moments of anxiety, With only small interruptions of moments of anxiety, such as seeing my perpetrator at Essie’s, I was okay and that felt great.

In late September, I received an email from the woman who served as both my case manager and advisor, saying that she was going on vacation and would be back in early October.  She never emailed me to say she had returned, but I thought little of it.  That is until PubSafe emailed to ask to set up another interview. In attempts to schedule, I got an auto-reply email from my case manager and advisor saying she was still out of the office.  Other than that one auto-reply email, I knew nothing.  And no one was telling me anything.  It felt like there was deafening silence from every side. Title IX had not contacted me to say my case manager and advisor’s absence had extended and she herself didn’t contact me.  Someone I  relied on so heavily for support had disappeared through an automated email.

In feelings of exasperation, anxiety, and abandonment, I made an appointment with Title IX to ask what was happening. My case manager and advisor was unexpectedly gone, they told me, and they didn’t know when she’d be returning.  So this, friends, is the moment the anger began…How was it okay for no one to tell me before this? No one had communicated this with me at all.  I didn’t know she was still gone in that time, I didn’t know she may be gone for longer, and I still don’t know what happened to her.  I had to email and schedule my own meeting to ask what was going on. Suddenly, it felt like my main feeling of security had vanished.  I didn’t realize how much safer I had felt knowing she was on campus until she was gone. The backlog of anxiety from the point she originally left for vacation to that moment in the Title IX office overwhelmed me. My emotional stress skyrocketed and, suddenly, I was no longer okay, and I couldn’t shake the nagging question in the back of my mind of when, what, or if they would have told me if I hadn’t asked.

In that same meeting, they told me I could choose a person to serve as my new advisor and they would look for a new case manager.  It was blindsiding to have to find someone new.  After all, my previous case manager and advisor was trained and paid for the job.  Who could I ask to take that on? A friend wouldn’t know how to be an advisor, wouldn’t know the system, no matter how supportive they may want to be. I couldn’t ask for that level of emotional labor and support from a friend.  So I was left to search for an employee whose time would be compensated and who preferably had experience, but whom I had never met before. The process of picking a new advisor in itself was wholly depressing.  I absolutely hated the idea of having to walk someone new through every detail of my case.  I hated the idea that this new person was a huge gamble. I wouldn’t know how they would react, what they would say, what they would think of my case… And I felt the weight of time pressing me to find this new person immediately. After all, PubSafe was waiting and I wanted this whole process to be over.

I found a new advisor and, not knowing exactly what to do, I went ahead and scheduled my next interview with PubSafe.  Apparently, I did that without a case manager and I am still unsure if that was an acceptable  action to take, but no one had told me otherwise.  Again, no one has told me anything.

When I next met with PubSafe, they assured me that, though my previous case manager and advisor’s disappearance prolonged the 60-day timeline a bit, it would be, at most, by a few days. I was promised that this case would be over well before Thanksgiving. At least one thing was still on track and, despite all of the pain I had felt, I could see relief.  As time passed, I was less and less sure that was the truth.  Thanksgiving was too close for it to be the truth.  So now, there was no light at the end of this tunnel. And the PubSafe investigator had left for vacation until after Thanksgiving.

Now, I’d like to return to the issue of our Interim Title IX Coordinator, because this is what makes me most angry. To review, the two people with whom I started this process have left and I am essentially working with strangers. The Interim Title IX Coordinator is a perfectly competent and qualified person for the position of interim coordinator.  However, what I consider to be discomforting and what no one at all told me, was that this person now running the Title IX Office was previously the advisor for the person I had accused.

Let’s break that down. The Interim Title IX Coordinator had not only met, talked to, and known the person I accused, she had, hypothetically, accompanied him to his PubSafe interview.  She had been his support person. I was not okay.  I had spoken to her without knowing. I had opened up, I had depended on her for information and support as the head of the Title IX Office.  Swarthmore wasn’t going to tell me.  I found out accidentally.  And now, she must recuse herself from working my case to decide if there could be a code violation.  So they’re bringing in yet another stranger to make that decision. I feel betrayed.  I feel isolated and distanced from Title IX.  I feel alone.

I am angry.  I don’t have the support of the Title IX House, I don’t have my previous case manager and advisor, and I don’t have the administration’s assistance.  This process has made it infinitely more anxious for me to see this person on campus, because I not only associate him with what he did, but also with the torment of this process. A process that has been prolonged and painful beyond reason.

Yet I know I am not the person most hurt by this injustice.  There are others who have had the same administrative chaos, but who did not feel “okay” like I did in the beginning. So while I am angry for myself, I am angry for them as well, and for everyone else this system has dragged through traumatizing and re-traumatizing and re-re-traumatizing circumstances.  I am angry for every other person who was victim to a broken promise of “no longer than 60 days.”  I am angry for those who have dropped their cases because the drawn out emotional burden was too much to handle on a daily basis.  I am angry for everyone who has woken up in the morning terrified to leave their room and face the day and maybe the person they accused, but has handed their case to a broken system. I am angry that the system alone isn’t helping me, but neither are the people running it. I am angry that we were promised a system that would support us and that ultimately, this promise was a lie. I wonder, in the priorities of Swarthmore, if Title IX cases fall above or below Coffee Talks with the Dean.

As of this week, it has been more than 80 days.*

 

*Editor’s note: This piece was originally written about a week before the date published. Any details pertaining to the timeline of the author’s case are represented in this article as they were on 11/28/17.