FAYETTEVILLE -- Plans remain in place to expand the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville office that responds to student reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment, but the school year has begun with an interim Title IX coordinator and an ongoing search to hire more staffing, a spokesman said.
UA students have spoken out to describe a poor response to sexual assault, doing so at a campus rally in April and through testimonies collected via social media by student government leaders this spring.
A student-led petition called for more trauma-informed staff members in the university's Title IX office, among other demands. Joe Steinmetz, UA's chancellor until he resigned in June, told the Democrat-Gazette in April that the university would follow the steps outlined by students in their petition.
One demand of students has since been met by UA, with the university providing initial funding for what a spokesman called a Sexual Assault Impact Fund to help survivors of sexual violence.
Coleman Warren, president of UA's Associated Student Government, said work remains for the university to restore trust in the reporting process for sexual violence.
"Students just don't think they're going to get the support they need," Warren said.
Warren said Title IX officials and staff members need to consider the trauma experienced by a student reporting sexual assault. The office can be impartial but still have a "humanistic approach," he said.
"I think transparency is going to be really important, to make sure all students are going to be informed about what's happening, students that are in communication with the Title IX office," Warren added. "In order to build the trust that we're looking for, it's going to take some kindness and compassion and listening to students' needs."
Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, said the university expects, once hiring is complete, to have three Title IX investigators, up from the single full-time investigator employed currently.
"After recent position postings, we are now in the process of scheduling interviews for candidates who have applied for the following three positions: a Title IX case manager and two Title IX investigators," Rushing said in an email.
Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination at schools receiving federal money. Schools, generally, must respond under federal regulations to student reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
As part of this response, colleges must provide supportive measures, possibly including class schedule or room changes, to students reporting sexual misconduct. Campuses must also investigate and provide a fair process to determine if sexual misconduct has occurred, doing so apart from any possible criminal investigation.
UA starts the year with Sara Thomas serving as interim Title IX coordinator.
Liz Means resigned as Title IX coordinator at the end of April, after just over a year on the job.
Thomas joined the university in July after previously working as legal counsel for a nonprofit organization supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence, she said.
"I have served as a Title IX advisor and investigator for other Universities," Thomas said in an email.
Rushing said the university's goal is to make a permanent hire and additional staff hires "as soon as possible this semester."
Thomas plans to leave UA once the new Title IX coordinator is in place, Rushing said, though there would possibly be some "brief overlap" to pass along ongoing work or information.
Warren said no undergraduate students were invited to review the qualifications of Title IX coordinator candidates.
"We would have liked to have seen at least one undergraduate student representative," Warren said.
But undergraduate students, as well as graduate students, did get to interview a candidate for the Title IX coordinator position, Warren said. Students also met last week with the candidate informally at a coffee shop, he said.
He said it's important for the university to hire the right person, as the UA's Title IX office gets built up "in a way, from the ground up."
Recent grad's push
Warren in the spring helped create the online petition calling for change, assisting UA's 2020-21 student body president Julia Nall and 2020 UA graduate Gillian Gullett.
"Until they have legitimate Title IX staff and a more sound reporting process, I'd consider them even further behind than where they were when I made these recommendations in April," Gullett said in a text message. She's now a graduate student at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.
Gullett in the spring called out the university on social media for paying a $20,000 legal settlement to a former student found responsible under university policy for sexually assaulting her. Gullett has given the Democrat-Gazette permission to use her name.
A campus panel in 2018 found the student responsible for violating the school's sexual harassment and sexual misconduct policy by a 2-1 vote, doing so on appeal after UA's Title IX coordinator at the time had found him not responsible.
The university uses a preponderance of evidence standard, so cases are decided based on whether something is more likely than not to have occurred.
Gullett this spring also criticized the university for failing to update her about settlement talks with the former student identified in court documents as "John Doe."
"Doe" had filed a lawsuit in federal district court claiming that gender discrimination and a lack of due process led to the university wrongly sanctioning him for misconduct. Court documents stated "Doe" was allowed to graduate but required "to complete Title IX training, 10 hours of community service and an online sexual violence accountability course."
The settlement paid by the university to "Doe" earlier this year came after a federal appeals court ruled that his lawsuit could continue despite a district judge's earlier dismissal of the case. No criminal charges were ever filed against "Doe."
One of the demands in the petition put together by Gullett and student leaders called for UA to create a fund to assist survivors of sexual violence in an amount greater than the $20,000 legal settlement.
Rushing said the university has seeded a fund with $20,001 to support sexual violence survivors. U of A Cares, a part of UA's Division of Student Affairs, will manage the money, Rushing said, and the fund may help pay for "counseling, medical costs or a change in living arrangements," for example.
Warren said student government leaders will work with the university to raise more money to add to the fund through an annual fundraising event known as All In For Arkansas.
Gullett in the spring met virtually with Steinmetz and this summer has stayed in contact with Laura Jacobs, chief of staff for UA's chancellor's office, to follow up on the petition demands.
The petition also included a call for sexual assault prevention to be a part of the curriculum in first-year experience courses for UA students.
The university has a new online educational program about sexual assault prevention, but Gullett said she'd like to see instructors in first-year University Perspectives courses required to use the materials in class.
By not having such a requirement in place, "in my eyes, that undermines what we agreed upon," Gullett said.