Students’ concerns prompt review of sexual misconduct policies, resources

Task force of students, experts, faculty and staff to produce findings by end of this semester


CJ Harkness, right, Baldwin Wallace’s Title IX coordinator, speaks during a Jan. 17 campus forum addressing issues and policies related to sexual misconduct.

A new task force at Baldwin Wallace will seek to address campus concerns about sexual misconduct policies and procedures.

Announced at the Jan. 17 forum on safety prompted by student concerns, the task force — co-chaired by Dr. Sophia Kallergis, director of the BW counseling center, and Dr. Tom Sutton, professor of political science — is comprised of faculty, staff, students, and experts from outside of BW and is expected to report findings by end of the semester.

The group, which will focus on issues of sexual misconduct and discrimination, will review BW policies and procedures and compare them to those of peer institutions and will interview a number of individuals, including those who have formal roles in reporting processes and those who have been involved with investigations within the past three years.

The task force will attempt to encompass the multifaceted issues related to sexual misconduct and Title IX policies that oversee investigations and complaints.

Since the Jan. 17 forum emphasized the disconnect between university resources and student awareness of them, one “challenge” that has already been identified for the task force and the university, Sutton said, will be how to determine the best way to communicate information regarding Title IX and discrimination policies, procedures and resources to campus.

The current process, which relies heavily on front-loading information during freshmen year, means vital information does not necessarily stick with students.

“You don’t pay attention to things that you don’t think will affect you. That’s the way we are as humans. We’re hardwired that way,” said Sutton. “So when you get information about things like Title IX, discrimination and sexual harassment, unless you’ve had that kind of experience, you are probably going to assume that you’re not going to have to worry about that.”

Sutton said the work of the task force aims to help to rebuild student’s trust in BW.

“My hope is that this will instill a sense of trust in the university that we are trying to do the right thing for the right reasons,” said Sutton. “People need to be patient because, if this is done right, it’s going to take some time.”

Sutton estimates that members will spend approximately two hours a week on work related to the task force, and the campus community can expect the group to send biweekly email updates, which will also be archived and available on the MyBW website.

The task force will publish a report of its findings by the end of the semester, which might include a recommendation to continue their work into the following semester, Sutton said.

“We aim to finish what we are doing by the end of the semester, but that does not mean that this will be over,” Sutton said.

Though the task force will deal with issues related to Title IX, it will not feature the person on campus most associated with the federal law that mandates how universities handle sexual misconduct allegations.

Charles “CJ” Harkness, chief diversity officer and Title IX coordinator, oversees the university’s Title IX processes and has served as a touchpoint during campus discussions, but he will not be a member of the task force. Since it has a mandate to review current policies and practice, it is important that the task force operate independently from current Title IX staff and university administration, said Harkness.

“I’m not on the task force, and I think it’s important that I not be on the task force,” said Harkness. “It is an independent group. The president and I are not dictating who is on it.”

A partial list of task force members was announced Jan. 26 in a campus-wide email, which noted that additional faculty and student members would be named in the near future. Sutton said that they want to be sure to include members from a diverse sample of campus, including from LGBTQ organizations and student-of-color organizations. He also said that a student representative from the Conservatory will be included because of the concerns involving the school that were raised at the Jan. 17 forum. Those already announced include members of the faculty, staff, students and outside experts.

Once fully constituted, the task force will gather information from a variety of individuals in the BW community, Sutton said. The task force will reach out to interview those who are formally involved in reporting and investigating processes as well as those who have had experience with a personal Title IX case within the past three years, and they will be receiving comments from any other BW community member who wishes to provide information. Sutton stressed that the information gathered will be kept confidential, and the participation of individuals, especially those with past cases, will be “entirely voluntary.”

“We want to gather that information without betraying confidence,” said Sutton. “The task force will have to figure out how to do that — there’s no tried-and-true method I’m aware of.”

Sutton said he plans for the task force to seek approval of its methods of gathering information from individuals from the university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), an independent faculty organization that ensures the protection of human subjects involved in research on campus.

“[IRB members] can review and approve of what we’re doing to make sure that no one is harmed, no one is providing information that then goes public in any way, shape, or form, [and] that we’re managing the information in a way that keeps it secure,” said Sutton.

Sutton said that he expects that their methods can be expedited through IRB review. In the meantime, he said, some of the work of the task force, such as the review of BW’s current policies and procedures and the comparison to other institution’s methods, can be completed without seeking IRB approval.

The task force was created to respond to a list of student concerns curated by a group of students and alumni who met in the first week of classes. The nearly three-hour Jan. 10 meeting was organized on social media in a day and a half and was attended by approximately 90 students and alumni. The meeting was organized by junior Kathleen Moser and alumnus Aziz Ahmad, who had each raised concerns on social media regarding BW’s handling of sexual misconduct and other safety-related issues. The discussion resulted in a list of demands for BW’s administration.

Moser said she believed the strong turnout was evidence that the issue needs to be addressed.

“I didn’t expect it to be as big as it was, but once we tapped into the underlying problem of how BW handles sexual assault, so many people came forward with stories,” she said.

The group recently became an official campus organization called Student-Led Safety, which Moser said will continue to advocate for change on campus.

“I have a lot of faith in the student and alumni community at BW,” Moser said.

Though the Jan. 17 forum and subsequent task force stemmed from student-raised concerns, Harkness said BW had actually planned to take steps to raise awareness of sexual misconduct policies after noticing a marked increase in sexual misconduct complaints and concerns in the Fall.

Harkness said that he believes the national #MeToo movement helped to encourage sexual misconduct victims at BW to come forward. As a result, Harkness said, the administration had decided in December to send out an email emphasizing the school’s sexual misconduct policies on the first day of the Spring semester, as they do in the Fall. The email was sent to faculty and staff, but due to a technical issue, students did not receive the email until later in the week, Harkness said; the delay meant the email unintentionally coincided with the critical posts by Ahmad and Moser on social media.

“I do think it’s important for people to know that there was an effort to raise up the awareness of policy and procedures,” Harkness said, “but it was not a response to what was going on online with what Kathleen and Aziz had been posting.”