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UD marks milestones, new focus on education in campus sexual misconduct reforms

Delaware Public Media

This year, the University of Delaware takes a big step forward in reforming the ways it handles sexual assault and misconduct on campus. The school is implementing a new model for reporting misconduct cases. It's adding extra training for staff, and it's refocusing on educating the campus community about rape culture and how to combat it.

As the Blue Hens wrap up their first week back to school, Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik reports on the school's progress in changing its Title IX policies -- and how far it has left to go.


Sage Carson was a first-semester freshman at the University of Delaware when she realized something wasn't right. It was the first weekend of the school year, at a party with some girls from her dorm.

"One of my friends -- this guy kept making out with her and she looked really uncomfortable. And so I grabbed her and she ran out," she remembers. "And I kept telling her, like, 'Why didn't just say no?' and she's like, 'I can't say no.'"

"I kept telling her, 'Why didn't just say no?' and she's like, 'I can't say no.'"

  Now a junior, Carson has spent the last two years on campus leading the call for change in how the university deals with sexual assault -- in policy, practice and attitude. That included rallies last year in response to a case in which a former UD professor allegedly offered a student good grades in exchange for sexual favors.

"And that kind of just stirred students' distrust in the administration, and kind of brought out a bunch of stories of people that had experienced things," Carson says.

That was in fall 2014, and it kicked off a year of major change at UD. At the center was their new Title IX coordinator, Sue Groff. She moved over from athletics, and she had a bit of a rocky start, says Carson -- anger from students, poorly attended meetings. But by this past spring, they both feel they'd made a lot of progress.

"I'm really excited about the first year. I was thrilled with the work that we accomplished," Groff says. "We have the new comprehensive policy in place that's going to be easier for people to find and navigate. ... We're going to be implementing an online module for all of our employees, full time and part time."

That half-hour module will standardize training for faculty and staff to be mandatory reporters -- meaning they have to tell authorities if someone comes to them with allegations of sexual misconduct. And the new policy seeks to clarify and streamline the whole process.

And those aren't the biggest changes in store this year. The headline is a new model for what happens when a student reports a case of potential sexual misconduct. In the past, those students went through a hearing process with a panel of peers, faculty and staff. Sometimes, they had to face their alleged perpetrator.

Now, Groff says, "they won't have to go in front of other people. They will essentially work one-on-one with our trained professionals for this area."

UD's two new investigators will interview people involved in the case, gather documentation and write up their findings. Punishments will still be handed down through the old panel system.

Groff says the investigator model was already in place for employees -- now, it'll be a less intimidating option for students, too. UD declined to make the new investigators available for an interview, but they're Fatimah Stone, formerly a human resources investigator at the University of Notre Dame, and Michael Kelly, a New Castle County and Middletown police veteran.

"Switching to the investigator model gets more people to report, which means we get more people off-campus."

Groff says she expects reports of sexual misconduct to increase on their watch. She couldn't speak for sanctions, or expulsions -- which UD had five of in the past four years -- but Sage Carson is optimistic.

"One of the biggest things is getting people to report. And it is scary - I don't blame anyone for not reporting. I don't know if I could do it," Carson says. "So I think switching to the investigator model gets more people to report, which means we get more people off-campus. And I think as you see more persecutions for people that are doing these actions, then more people will report because they'll feel safe in the process."

But Carson says they still have a ways to go in educating students on what rape is, what to do if you think you've been a victim -- and how to help others stay safe. She and Groff both say that with some of the big policy changes underway, education is their top priority this year. In fact, Carson will interning in Sue Groff's office. She's hoping to help the administration reach more students.

"Many people don't even know what sexual misconduct is and what that means. So they don't believe if -- let's say, they're intoxicated, they can commit an assault," Carson says. "But we have affirmative consent at this school, meaning that if you do not gain consent from someone verbally, then it's an assault. And that takes a while to get through someone's head -- that it's not a 'no means no,' but in fact a 'yes means yes.'"

"People who've been doing the work for a very long time are sitting on this precipice of significant change."

She also wants to work on bystander education. That mandatory reporter training for more staff is part of that. But they'll also be working directly with freshmen -- and everyone in between. That's with the help of Nancy Chase in the office of Student Wellness and Health Promotion. She says not all freshmen have been exposed to bystander training before. This year, they're putting everyone through a popular higher ed program called Bringing in the Bystander.

"A bystander intervention approach … tries to engage every member of the community, every member of society, in understanding sort of what their role is in understanding these issues, protecting people who might be vulnerable, and stopping crime from happening," Chase explains.

She's been working on issues of rape culture on UD's campus for more than 20 years. Like Carson, she feels those norms and conversations are starting to shift.

"People who've been doing the work like we've been doing on campuses for a very long time are sort of sitting on this precipice of significant change," Chase says. "And a lot of what we've really strived hard for a very long time [is] finally getting the attention, and people actually listening and being motivated to want to see more happen."

Sue Groff feels UD has been ahead of the curve with its Title IX policy and its responses to federal investigations and calls for reform. Nancy Chase says it's more of a well-intentioned system that, like at many schools, for many years, has failed.

"And that is very dismaying and really, honestly, very tragic to those survivors that have had those systems fail them," Chase says. "But I do think that with the right intention and now with the right focus … that there is a chance for rapid change."

A big part of that will be gathering feedback on if new measures are having an impact -- like the investigator model, and the bystander training. What they learn could have broader implications, Chase says. Campuses are a microcosm -- a place where societal issues come into focus.

"It makes sense because we do still have young people who are forming their values and still really actively learning about the world and actively trying to figure out who they want to be in the world," Chase says. "But it really is still very difficult work."

"You have to continue to have these conversations."

Sage Carson wants to take advantage of that. She says UD still has some catching up to do -- but that no school has a perfect situation yet. By the time she graduates -- hopefully to pursue a master's in public policy and continue working on women's issues -- she wants to have passed her activism on to the next generation of Blue Hens.

"I think just having the younger students want to engage in these issues -- there's a lot of of how my generation is very apathetic, and I've been seeing in my junior class that they're not apathetic, they're very engaged in the community," Carson says. "So I hope that we can kind of we can push that on the other students and hopefully they'll want to be engaged too and keep these conversations going so that when my class leaves it doesn't just stop. You have to continue to have these conversations."

That's exactly what she and others will seek to do this year.


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