Recently, Binghamton University released a review of its Title IX policies in conjunction with Husch Blackwell, an independent law firm. The 34-page report covers the issues of sexual assault, an overview of the current Title IX offices, issues relating to student conduct and ultimately provides recommendations for the University and its administration. Husch Blackwell is a credible firm, having previously investigated Louisiana State University regarding their policies, a report that was nearly 150 pages long. While Husch Blackwell remains an independent law firm, it is worth noting that BU paid the firm to conduct this investigation.
While all of this sounds like a great start to addressing a real problem on campus, a few glaring errors stand out. Thirty-four pages doesn’t feel like nearly enough, and the rush to publish the report doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Largely, the fact that the report states that, “We are unable to identify any broad systemic compliance failures,” is shocking to say the least. The overall feel of the report is that it addresses the individual problems of offices at the University, not how the University as a complete entity allows these crimes to happen.
The terms the administration, and we, as a campus, use to address the issue of sexual assault and violence are important. To state, in any way, that there is no issue with the systems in place at BU is wrong. Sexual violence on our campus isn’t a recent issue, and it isn’t just some horrific fluke. It happens and is allowed to fester as a result of how BU operates. Plain and simple. Why would BU be no different than any other college?
It does appear that the administration is going to follow through on some of the demands made by student groups to address sexual violence, and that’s commendable. The administration has also added a new deputy Title IX, coordinator, Amy Zieziula, to their staff and will be hiring two more counselors for students. We deeply hope that this is a sign that progress will continue.
One of the largest and most clear of the recommendations provided in the report is that the BU administration increases both the spread of knowledge and communication about Title IX. While the report focuses on communication between departments that deal with these issues, transparent communication must be made with students as well. Survivors need to know exactly what their options are for courses of action, where they can get support and what exactly their lives will be like during the down time of their cases. Even if it takes email after email or multiple Zoom sessions, there isn’t a person who has experienced sexual assault who wouldn’t want to know what they can do to regain control of their life. Laying out timelines and options in clear, straightforward terms ensures that no one is left in the dark, waiting for something bad to happen. Providing a comprehensive list of resources and information about how Title IX works for students helps everyone.
The report also recognized that the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life is not integrated into the Title IX offices and policies well enough. Greek life is overwhelmed when it comes to sexual assault, and off-campus incidents are often more difficult in addressing to begin with, largely due to the grey area that is local versus campus jurisdiction. BU doesn’t own the housing that many Greek organizations reside in, so the task at hand often falls to Binghamton Police Department (BPD) and their track record is just … not great. With more clear-cut guidelines, the BU administration and Title IX offices can find ways to still hold perpetrators accountable, even if the judicial system won’t. Maybe, at the very least, they can ensure that survivors are protected on their campus and work around whatever cannot be tackled head on. Simply leaving it to the city of Binghamton to handle leaves students vulnerable. Should these recommendations be heeded, those involved in the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and the Office of Student Conduct must be actively involved.
Training, not just on the prevention of sexual assault, but on the navigation of Title IX itself, is crucial to the combating of sexual violence at BU. The report found that BU wasn’t meeting all of the standards set by the state and that cannot be allowed to continue. This training needs to be reevaluated and updated, and it doesn’t need to stop at Greek life. Student organizations would also benefit in learning how to properly handle these issues, so that when a survivor comes forward, they can receive support.
The report also advocated for restorative justice for survivors, something that the newly established Violence, Abuse and Rape Crisis Center (VARCC) may be able to provide. Helping to give students a safe place to speak about these issues, providing ample resources and improving transparency are all ways in which survivors can be helped. Rather than treating the concept as abstract, the administration must take this opportunity to look at those who have been affected by sexual violence and help them heal. Hiring trauma-informed counselors to work closely with VARCC and with the Title IX offices will ensure that the process of seeking justice can be one that provides healing rather than more hurt.
With Student Association elections having occurred earlier this week, and with issues of sexual assault touching nearly everyone’s platform, we also hope that the students who lead the BU community forward next year continue the work that has already begun with fervor.
The public release of the Husch Blackwell report is a rough start, and it is thanks to groups like the Women’s Student Union and @shareyourstorybing that this start has the potential to be much more. It would be easier for the administration to simply take the report’s recommendations at face value then wash their hands of the issue — it wouldn’t make them different than any other university across the country. But to the hundreds of students who have experienced sexual harassment, assault or violence in their time at BU, and for those who will likely experience it in the future, this cannot be downplayed or treated as a bargaining chip, easily moved aside when more “pressing” issues arise. The issues these survivors face are complex, and they deserve innovative and honest efforts. When one horrific event has the potential to change and cause so much damage to a student’s life, the BU community must help and support its own members. Now is not the time to let the clock run out or to hope issues resolve themselves — action must begin now and must continue for years to come.