Sophomore Jessie Cordwell gets about 30 emails a day. When she received one saying there were changes made to the student handbook, she skimmed it and went on with her day.
The email, sent out on Sept. 28, informed students about the changes made to Elon University’s Title IX and sexual misconduct policy. Months later, many students still don’t know what the changes are, or even that changes had been made in the first place.
Cordwell said one reason she didn’t spend much time with the email was that it didn’t seem much different from any other update she gets from university officials every day.
“Anytime there's a thunderstorm outside, we get an email alert that says, ‘lightning spotted in the area.’ … But then there are sort of these emails, these changes that seem to fly under the radar, and they're not really projected with the same amount of gravitas and weight that they hold,” Cordwell said.
Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said Elon sending an email about changes to the Title IX and sexual misconduct policy is a step in the right direction when it comes to informing a university body, but there questions and issues still remain. According to Johnson-Hostler, colleges today face difficulties informing students of changes because students don’t always know what the processes are in the first place.
“Some students won't even know the process has changed,” Johnson-Hostler said. “We tell every university, please make sure your students are aware of the process, and let's not wait until something traumatic happens to a student.”
According to NCCASA, the biggest thing a college can do is promote prevention, and Johnson-Hostler said this means making sure all students, faculty and staff know that sexual violence is not tolerated. At Elon, all incoming students are required to complete an online module about sexual harassment, but Johnson-Hostler said this is not an accessible resource for every student at any time.
“Very few campuses make it a priority for all students to always have access,” Johnson-Hostler said. “Because unless you're super involved, what you learned as a freshman may not be what you remember as a junior.”
There’s one group on campus that does have access to extra training: responsible employees. Elon’s campus includes nine types of university employees that are required to report instances of sexual misconduct disclosed to them, including deans, residence life, department chairs and campus security. Student resident assistants are also part of this group.
But sophomore resident assistant Caleb Martin said despite training on how to handle different situations, he’s not sure what the policies and processes themselves are.
“I still don't really know what Title IX does,” Martin said. “To me, I just report. I don't really know what happens, where it goes.”
Molly Zlock, director of HR compliance, equal opportunity and Title IX at Elon, said her main concern is making sure students know her office can offer support to anyone in any situation, not that students are well-versed in how Title IX accountability cases work. Zlock said most students who report to her office don’t end up pursuing a case.
“The message that we're trying to get out to the students is, one, we're responding to all reports of sexual misconduct. Number two, that response is primarily one to offer supportive measures and resources,” Zlock said.
The Sept. 28 email said the changes made to the student handbook happened because of updates in federal guidance and recent case law, but this isn’t a new occurrence. Under the Trump administration, vast changes were made to federal Title IX policy, and one platform President Joe Biden campaigned on was overturning them.
Prior to 2020, all sexual harassment that fell into one or more categories of severe, pervasive or objectively offensive could be seen under a Title IX process. But in May 2020, the Department of Education, under former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, released the Final Rule under Title IX, which changed the definition so that sexual harassment complaints have to fit all three categories.
That’s when, according to Zlock, the university created the two processes now used in the office of Title IX. Since the Final Rule definition excludes many cases that would have been covered by Title IX in the past, the university created a second, non-Title IX sexual misconduct process, which covers all other cases.
An email was sent to students on Aug. 14, 2020 — the day the initial changes went into effect — with the 2020-21 student handbook. The seventh and final paragraph of the email stated that the Title IX and sexual misconduct section of the handbook had been revised to reflect changes in federal guidance.
A lot happened at Elon on Aug. 14, 2020. It was the first day of freshman move-in for the academic year, and it was the first day back on campus after the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home halfway through the spring 2020 semester. Zlock said because the Title IX changes had made national news, making sure students knew that they had changed fell second to making sure students knew all of the other new policies being implemented that year for COVID-19 safety.
“I feel like everybody knew these changes were coming,” Zlock said. “They knew when it was going to be implemented by August. And then we have to send the handbook out to all students every year, I think that that all just kind of fell in mind together, along with everything else that was going on.”
Zlock said the two processes are taken equally as seriously and are handled exactly the same way, except for one difference — Title IX cases are required to hold a live hearing, whereas sexual misconduct cases are not.
Prior to July, the Final Rule left a loophole in this process. If a person, party or witness involved in a Title IX investigation did not attend the hearing, the court was prohibited from using any statement made by them. For example, if a hypothetical person accused of a Title IX offense admitted guilt in the investigation but then didn’t show up to their hearing, the admission would have to be thrown away, Zlock said. A district court case in Massachusetts in July changed this. The court found the clause unlawful and removed the amendment.
That was the change made to the student handbook in the most recent email. Effective since Sept. 28, if that person didn’t attend, the evidence pertaining to them, such as an admission of guilt, could still be used against them in the hearing.
Johnson-Hostler said she thinks colleges need to make policies and changes clear to students by having more places to learn about them.
“By clear I mean, yes, have it in their handbook, so that they can actually go to it if they need it, because that is where some students go, but it's more important to me that students are aware … that sexual violence isn’t tolerated and there is policies on campus before an assault happens,” Johnson-Hostler said.
According to Johnson-Hostler, some campuses do this through sexual violence clinics, organizations and offices that host events and make sure students are always made aware, not just when laws change.
Martin said although he didn’t understand the policy or changes made to them from the emails about the student handbook, he does trust that the people working in the Title IX office are trying to support students as they keep up with changes.
“I don't think they're gonna ever throw people out to the wayside and be like, ‘I'm sorry, do that yourself,’” Martin said. “I've met a few of them, they went to our training and stuff, they have counselors on call, they have other people, the anonymous tip line. All these things are built just to make us feel safe and to make our friends or roommates, our faculty and staff feel safe.”
In many of the classes she’s taken, Cordwell said she’s heard the same sentiment from professors over and over — it's students’ responsibility to check their email. And though she agrees, Cordwell said not all emails are created equal.
“Ultimately, yes, students should be checking their email, they should be keeping an eye out for stuff like that … but I think that it's still important for Elon to make sure that all students are aware that this is something that is really critical to the way that the school works,” Cordwell said.