Compassionate But Impartial

Paperwork aside, Title IX coordinators say their jobs take an unusual emotional toll and encourage peers to exercise self-care.

December 19, 2014
Richard Baker

Richard Baker’s first case as an administrator of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 showed him how different this job was going to be. The vice president for equal opportunity at the University of Houston had worked on nondiscrimination issues for years, but dealing with a student’s report of sexual assault was more emotionally charged than anything he'd ever faced professionally.

When a complainant alleges discrimination based on race or ethnicity, or some other characteristic, Baker said, “there’s always a sense of disappointment or anger, but nothing to the degree of someone who has been the victim of a sexual assault.”

In that first sexual assault case four years ago and others since, he said, “there’s this sense of ‘Do you believe me? Do you really believe that this happened to me?’ That really stuck with me.”

Baker’s not alone. Experts say that the Title IX coordinator position is uniquely stressful in that these administrators are often some of the first people to interact with alleged victims, and must delicately ask for precise and difficult details to guide their investigations. And despite criticism from some victims' advocates that Title IX coordinators aren't always sympathetic enough, or prioritize their institution over its students, experts also say these administrators are often are drawn to their work because they enjoy helping students. So it's trying, they say, for coordinators to maintain impartiality with victims and their alleged attackers so as not to taint the investigation.

Parents frequently get involved, and whatever a Title IX coordinator determines following an investigation will affect the lives of both complainant and respondent – sometimes gravely. Title IX coordinators’ recommendations as to whether or not an institution's sexual harassment policy has been violated often determine whether or not a case will advance to a hearing or whether punishment will be given.

And although Title IX investigators are increasingly coming to their roles with legal backgrounds – especially as Congressional inquiries and unprecedented media attention shine a harsh light on campus sexual assault – they typically lack the training on resilience and coping that counselors and advocates receive. Those emotional pressures come on top of negotiating what is still a relatively new position, the isolation that comes with being the sole Title IX investigator on lots of campuses, mounting caseloads and demand for a quick turnaround on investigations.

Confidentiality also is key, limiting the ways in which administrators can vent to family and friends and – if they’re lucky enough to have them – colleagues in the same line of work.

“It’s emotionally and psychologically draining, especially for Title IX coordinators who don’t have a background in student affairs – who aren’t used to the emotional toll of these kinds of cases,” said Daniel Swinton, associate executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, or ATIXA, a national professional group formed three years ago in part to provide a sense of community among coordinators.

Some 325 members attended the association’s annual conference last month, he said, not only for professional development but to be “among a cadre of colleagues who know what you’re going through.”

Swinton, a former assistant dean and director of student conduct and academic integrity at Vanderbilt University and a current managing partner at the NCHERM group, which advises colleges and universities on security and other issues, said coordinators generally come to “rely on the process” by which they and their institutions investigate sexual assault. But they can still feel “pulled in both directions.”

Being a coordinator is a “tough role, because you can’t take sides, so to speak,” between accuser and accused, or assume the role of advocate – no matter how tough the case is, he said. “You have to be in the middle.”

Dan Jones, director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University, has written about the toll sexual assault investigations take not only on Title IX coordinators but other faculty, staff and students involved. He said maintaining impartiality can be a particular challenge since many of the candidates drawn to such work are "kind, compassionate people" and because "these rape cases are often very ugly, and very often adversarial." He said he knew of investigators and advocates who had suffered stress-induced health issues or interpersonal conflict following their involvement in such cases.

Harriet Barlow has been Title IX coordinator and an assistant vice president for diversity at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas since 2011, the year the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights released its Dear Colleague letter highlighting how sexual assault and harassment fall under the purview of Title IX; before that, the amendment was most commonly used to enforce gender equity in college sports.

Barlow, who previously served as Las Vegas’s associate dean for graduate student services, said she, too, was “unprepared for how emotionally draining and stressful this work is,” although she noted she experienced “somewhat similar” stress working with issues related to student conduct as a dean.

Most stressful about her current role, she said, is knowing an investigation “involves real people and the resolutions may have real-life implications for all parties involved." Maintaining impartiality is another challenge – along with meeting deadlines and complying with evolving and overlapping institutional, state and federal policies and mandates, she said.

Baker, who is also a lawyer, said that training has helped him avoid the pitfalls of partiality, which can lead to “looking at evidence through a tainted lens.” Instead, he said, it’s important to build connections to counselors and advocates on campus who can support both the alleged victim and the respondent.

He said he’s also clear that any decision he makes about a sexual harassment or assault claim is based on gathered evidence and held to a preponderance of evidence standard – not a judgment of either party.

“It’s just realizing that at the end of it all, there’s a process that should be relied upon,” he said. “I came into this business with the idea that civil rights is an issue I want to be part of, and this is another aspect of my job.”

Barlow noted that she personally found it helpful to meet twice a month with her small team of deputy coordinators to “discuss all things Title IX” -- updates on cases, whether they’re on track with investigations – and, perhaps just as important, “share the stress.”

Baker also meets with a team of colleagues on a regular basis. ​For coordinators who aren’t part of a team on their campuses, he recommended getting connected with peers on other campuses through professional associations or listservs, and exercising “self-care.”

Swinton said resiliency and self-care aren’t yet formal discussion topics at ATIXA training sessions or meetings, but that they probably should be. In any case, he said, they made for lots of informal discussions at the recent gathering.

Jones, the director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State, said the wave of sexual harassment and assault claims under Title IX has come on so fast that “people doing this work are having to literally play catchup, ahead of what you could say is the science – the research or literature – to prepare you for this.”

Jones guessed that training protocols and support "infrastructures" will be more "solid" a few years from now. In the meantime, he encouraged coordinators and others involved in sexual assault cases to talk with friends and family or participate in a favorite activity to de-stress, and to seek professional counseling if they need it. 


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