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A single black chess pawn against a gray background.

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I was a victim advocate on a college campus for seven years. Since 2011, I have worked as a faculty member whose research, teaching and activism focuses on addressing sexual violence among college students.

And for the past five years, I’ve led the development of a center for violence prevention on a campus where three women were murdered by domestic or dating partners in one year, followed by an additional alleged domestic violence homicide four years later.

In short, I’ve witnessed a lot.

Few things make me more ashamed or angry than the way the federal government attempts to intervene in sexual misconduct on college campuses. Politicians use survivors and transgender students as pawns in a political power struggle.

Title IX regulations are political. They change depending on who holds the office of president of the United States. This is ridiculous. Adding to the confusing picture, the newest regulations—set to take effect Aug. 1—have been temporarily blocked in 14 states, and a recent Supreme Court ruling calls the future of Title IX rules, any Title IX rules, into serious question.

Survivors are continually hurt by the ever-changing regulations. When administrators are required to spend their time and energy creating and re-creating policy and practices to comply with new Title IX regulations every few years, they do not have time to engage in effective prevention work. They are exhausted and burned out before they have a chance to even engage in education with students. They exist in a constant state of fear of messing up, which does not allow them to effectively engage either with survivors or with people on campus who cause harm.

Further, the number of students who engage with the Title IX process is minuscule compared to the number of students who experience sexual violence. The vast majority of students do not report their experiences of violence to any university administrator, and it’s not because the administrators are not trying hard enough. It’s because the process doesn’t offer what many students want or need.

Many survivors of violence tell us that what they need in the aftermath of violence is to be believed, to have the person who caused harm acknowledge the harm they caused and to have that person not engage in future harm. They are not requesting punitive responses to violence. In fact, many survivors say, “I don’t want them to get in trouble—I just want them to understand what they did and not do it again.”

Instead of listening to these survivors and attempting to intervene with those who cause harm to change their behavior, we have created a process that mirrors the criminal punishment system to adjudicate harm. This system causes further harm to survivors by drawing out a lengthy administrative process and requiring them to interact with administrators who are instructed to be “neutral” in the process. Extensive research documents the harm that survivors experience when they attempt to engage the Title IX process, including retraumatization and psychological, academic and financial issues. For example, some students drop classes because the person who caused them harm was in their class and the process did not result in resolution that made the survivor feel safe. Other students indicate that they had to extend their time to graduation or quit their jobs because of retaliation.

And this is just how the process impacts survivors. The people who engage in harmful behavior are also not helped by the process. Many people who engage in harmful sexual behavior are managing some sort of trauma themselves: They engage in harm because they have not yet healed from their own experiences with harm and trauma. Yet the adjudication process is set up in such a way that instead of considering how their behavior may have negatively impacted another person, people who cause harm dig their heels in and avoid taking any responsibility for even unknowingly causing harm. The lack of acknowledgment not only further harms survivors but likely contributes to more, rather than less, future violence because the person who engaged in harmful behavior does not understand what they did wrong. Instead of trying to understand, they move into a defensive, protective space, failing to acknowledge their harmful behavior.

So, what’s the answer here? Well, first, there’s not one answer. No policy is going to get us out of this mess.

That said, I do wonder how things would be different if we trusted people who work in higher education to do their jobs. Professionals who work on college campuses, especially in student conduct offices, have educational backgrounds and training in college student development and growth. They have experience understanding how adolescent and developing brains work.

When I was a victim advocate (before the advent of Title IX offices), I often sat with survivors who chose to pursue accountability through the student misconduct process. That way, even if the person who caused harm was not found responsible through the conduct process, survivors could still engage in healing. Survivors interacted with student conduct officers trained in student development, not compliance culture. Many survivors I worked with felt heard and believed by the conduct officer, which allowed them to keep moving forward with their healing without feeling like they were fighting.

At the same time, I knew some students who had engaged in harmful sexual behavior and who were reported to the student conduct process. Even if not found responsible under the policy, many of these students learned from their experience to change their behavior to not cause future harm. They recognized that even if their behavior did not rise to the level of a policy violation, they still did something that made someone uncomfortable enough to go through a terrible process. They gained some empathy. This happened, I believe, because the conduct officers approached them with care and accountability, rooted in their understanding of student development.

This process was not perfect: Some survivors also felt harmed by an ineffective student conduct process. Yet my experience is that far more survivors felt heard during these processes, run by student development professionals, than through adjudication processes dictated by confusing interpretation of federal policy and managed by administrators afraid of getting in trouble.

Three federal laws—Title IX, the Clery Act and the Campus SaVE Act—mandate how administrators in higher education must respond to sexual misconduct. Since April, I have received more than 30 unsolicited emails attempting to sell me something related to effectively implementing the new Title IX regulations … and I don’t even work in a policy or response program. I work in primary prevention. These laws and policies result in administrators and educators spending more time and money trying to stay in compliance with policy than working to end sexual violence. Many people working in sexual misconduct–related areas are confused, overwhelmed and afraid. They don’t have permission to be thoughtful and nuanced in their approaches to addressing violence; instead, they focus on doing it “right” so that they don’t get in trouble. Where does this leave our students? Also confused, overwhelmed and afraid.

Is it too late to go back? I think not. We cannot sit by while politicians use our most vulnerable students as pawns in a political game. We—those of us who work in higher education—know what we’re doing. We know how to hold students accountable with love and care. We know that constantly changing policy hurts everyone. We must stand up for ourselves and, more importantly, our students, and fight back against a compliance culture rooted in control and fear rather than care and compassion.

Chris Linder is a professor of educational leadership and policy and director of the McCluskey Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Utah.

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