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By Sophie Hills

Under Principia College’s revised Title IX policy, formal grievances about sexual and gender harassment, discrimination, and sexual misconduct will be heard by a panel of faculty and staff.

Nominations for a pool of panelists are being accepted through the link in the Watercooler until midnight today, May 1.

Panelists will be selected by Interim President Williams, Dean of Students Maya Dietz, Interim Assistant Academic Dean Edith List, and Title IX Coordinator BK Grimmer.

“Our true desire is to have a very balanced panel, because we recognize that the circumstances in one case could look very different to three or four different panelists,” says Grimmer. The April 28 Watercooler announcement detailed criteria that will be considered when picking panelists, including lack of bias, professionalism, and diversity.

Each formal grievance will have a hearing panel of three panelists, explains Grimmer, and the goal is to have a pool of  about 10 faculty and staff representing various backgrounds.

“Hearing Panels are charged with determining whether a policy violation has taken place and drafting sanctioning recommendations for presentation to the Dean of Students,” the Watercooler announcement notes. “The Hearing Panels will review independent fact-finding reports and may interview reporting and responding parties, as well as any identified witnesses.”

Procedural steps are outlined in detail in the policy, which can be found on the Title
IX page under the “Resources” tab on Prinweb.

There is a process through which students can request a substitution of panelists if they are
uncomfortable with any of the individuals, says Grimmer. The steps to do so are explained starting on the
bottom of page 20 of the policy.

Principia is mandated by the Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act – an Illinois law – to provide a minimum of eight hours of training per year for all Title IX staff. The hearing panelists will be part of that staff, says Grimmer, just like the confidential advisors who are already resources.

Planning for the training is still in the early stages, says Lee Barron, Principia general counsel. It will include basic training on the role and limitations of the hearing panels, what position belongs to the dean of students, how to ask good questions, and how to avoid asking questions that could be hurtful or are irrelevant, he says.

The training will be virtual, given the current state of things, and it will be recorded and made available to Title IX staff and possibly others who are interested, says Grimmer, because “we want a lot of transparency, and we want people to know how we’re trained.”

Part of the training will focus on understanding Principia’s recently revised policy and educating hearing panelists and Title IX staff on all recent changes, says Grimmer.

Training will also include a deeper look at Illinois law, to which Principia is accountable. It will also include a look at external paths. “If students don’t want to use the Principia policy and the college procedure, they don’t have to. They can call the police,” says Grimmer.

“We want it to be a safe process for everybody involved,” says Barron.

Grimmer is working on preparing about three hours of training with Call for Help, an Illinois-based social service agency specializing in personal crises, with an office in Alton.

The training with Call for Help will include deep training on rape culture, how to interact with people who’ve experienced trauma, and addressing cultural sensitivity around Title IX and sexual harassment, says Grimmer.

“Training from Call for Help will include advocacy — how we can advocate for students both during, before, after a hearing, in particular,” says Grimmer.

“While we want to be ready to respond to these sorts of situations,” says Grimmer, “it would be really great to do a lot of education ahead of time so that we have a better-informed community, and perhaps that could help lessen the frequency.”

“One thing I’ve noticed is that not everybody gets the connection between Title IX and sexual harassment,” says Grimmer, so she uses both terms. Title IX is a federal civil rights act protecting against gender discrimination in education. Because Principia doesn’t receive federal funding, the institution isn’t bound to Title IX guidelines.

“We do believe hearing panels are best practice, at this point,” says Grimmer, based on both internal and external legal counsel and her own training through the Association of Title IX Administrators.

“We have an understanding that we may need to reconsider the process, reevaluate, make tweaks,” she says, “but it is seen as best practice in the field of Title IX.”

Last year, Principia hired Husch Blackwell, a law firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, to conduct a review of Title IX practices at the college. The review was finished in the early fall and addressed in a Watercooler announcement that noted the firm recommended improvements, but found no evidence of errors in determinations made in the five past sexual misconduct complaints included in the report.

Senior leadership has since been revising Principia’s Title IX policy, formally called the “Principia College Policy for Resolving Reports of Sexual and Gender Harassment, Discrimination, and Sexual Misconduct.”

The Principia policy aligns with the Illinois mandate regarding preventing sexual harassment in higher education. “We feel really secure about the policy as it stands now,” says Grimmer. Outside legal counsel and Principia’s own legal counsel were consulted throughout the revision process.

“We’re working very hard to get this right,” says Barron, noting that the administration is open to continuous improvement.

Featured Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash.