Each August, first year students attend numerous orientation activities designed to inform and acclimate them to an unfamiliar college environment, including the Life at Furman skits on substance abuse and sexual assault. Orientation leaders deliver this information to all new and transfer students in a skit format, acting out common scenarios of abuse and assault and explaining afterwards the basics of Furman’s conduct policies. This August, orientation leaders delivered these skits in Daniel Recital Hall on Aug. 20th. The skit about sexual assault ended with this debrief:
"Narrator 1: More than 50% of college sexual assaults occur in the fall semester. Nothing you say, do or wear gives someone the right to assault you. You have the right and the responsibility to set your own limits, the right to give consent, and everyone’s right to say 'no' should be heard.
Narrator 2: Furman defines consent as being 'informed, freely and actively given, mutually understandable words or actions that indicate a willingness to participate in a mutually agreed-upon sexual activity.' It’s all about communication. Communicate your own boundaries and respect the boundaries of the person you are with.”
Narrator 1: The use of alcohol or drugs does not diminish anyone’s responsibility to obtain consent. If at any time, there is any confusion or ambiguity about consent, stop and check-in with the person you’re with to make sure they have the capacity to consent and that they genuinely want to continue.
Narrator 2: Know that there are campus policies and resources in place to deal with situations of sexual misconduct, including confidential resources. Please do not hesitate to seek help and guidance."
Programs like orientation skits provide new students with this information and access to Furman’s full Title IX and sexual misconduct policies.
On April 12th, 2021, at Furman Engaged, alum Mary Margaret McConnell and students Sabria Bowman, Sam Miller and Dearest Nayreau presented research on student understanding of Title IX for Dr. Savita Nair’s Issues in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Course. They found 39% of the 77 students they surveyed agreed they are unprepared to understand Furman’s Title IX process, 23% felt neutral about their knowledge on the process, and 38% agreed they are prepared to understand the process.
On Instagram, the anonymous handle @speakupfu, which gained over 500 followers, shares student stories about victim experiences with the Title IX office and the Furman University Police Department (FUPD). The account has a bio that reads, “submit anonymous submissions of experience with sexual violence on campus. Not directly affiliated with Furman University.” Several stories voice dissatisfaction with Title IX and FUPD (Furman University Police Department) responses to sexual violence.
Title IX: Compliance, Reporting, and Investigation
The Title IX office complies with federal Title IX regulations and reporting standards mandated by the Clery Act of 1990, or the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The University employs resources to Title IX officers, Human Resource officers, faculty, staff, and other outsourced professionals to investigate these campus crimes.
Enacted by federal law 50 years ago, Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded institutions of higher education. The Dear Colleague Letter, released more recently in 2011, gave institutions more instruction for dealing with cases of sexual misconduct.
“What the Dear Colleague Letter said in 2011 is when schools aren’t handling complaints of sexual assault transparently and fairly with process, you are taking away a student’s right on the basis of sex because of the interaction,” Dr. Jason Cassidy (Associate Vice President for Student Life) said. He noted that “if your institution is receiving federal funding, you can’t do that.”
The capacity for institutions like Furman to deal with sexual misconduct cases evolved drastically after this 2011 guidance, as staffing positions dealing with compliance and reporting were added nationwide. “11 years ago, there were no exclusive Title IX positions,” Sharen Beaulieu (Associate Vice President for Human Resources) said. “We’ve been training and adding folks along the way.” Rather than an add-on task to existing institutional structure, Title IX compliance expanded into full positions and offices.
Melissa Nichols, who currently fills the role of Title IX Coordinator on campus, explained the complexity of federal regulations since the 2011 shift. “They are constantly changing, and compliance is intricate,” she said. Nichols referred to President Trump’s 2020 regulations which “allowed live cross-examination of parties in the formal process.” Employees involved with Title IX receive required training with publicly listed modules, which seek to inform and update those employees on the formal disciplinary process for cases of sexual violence.
While the Title IX office can conduct formal disciplinary processes, it also offers several options for victims. “It’s important to distinguish between resources we offer and the formal process,” Nichols said. She went on to explain that “some students who report concerns do not want to initiate a formal process and instead opt for an alternative resolution process or just for supportive measures, neither of which require students to participate in interviews or hearings."
Alternative resolutions are mutually agreed upon by both Complainants (alleged victims) and Respondents (alleged perpetrators), who “voluntarily consent in writing” to the agreement. These resolutions could include permanent no contact orders, restrictions to certain private spaces, agreements not to participate in certain activities, completion of education modules, written apologies, therapy, and residential relocation, among other options.
For students who do want to initiate a formal process, consequences for violations are more extensive. "Because Furman can only discipline someone for sexual misconduct if the formal grievance process is followed, that may be the best option for students who want to see a disciplinary response," Nichols said.
If a complainant chooses to open a formal process against a respondent, both parties undergo an investigation and hearing conducted by two investigators appointed by the Title IX coordinator and a diverse 3-person hearing board composed of two Furman employees and a local attorney. Nichols stated that having an individual not affiliated with the university on formal hearing boards increases feelings of impartiality for both parties, which is beneficial for students undergoing stressful preparation for interviews and questioning.
“The hearing board doesn’t decide if sexual assault occurred,” Nichols said. “What they’re instructed to do is determine whether more than 50% of evidence shows a violation of the Sexual Misconduct Policy.” Respondents found responsible in a formal resolution process face more severe consequences. “Since I’ve been here, anyone who’s been found responsible for serious sexual misconduct through a disciplinary process has been suspended or expelled,” Nichols said.
Dr. Teresa Cosby, former Assistant Deputy Attorney General for the SC Attorney General’s Office and professor of political science, struggles with the idea of colleges having proper resources and expertise to handle sexual assault cases. “On college campuses the extent of punishment is expulsion, but in criminal proceedings, punishment involves deterrence,” she said. Cosby explained that “when victims are left with college procedures, acquaintance rape becomes hardly prosecutable.” A perpetrator of sexual violence found guilty under Title IX procedures won’t face criminal charges under their Title IX verdict. However, students have the option to open Title IX and criminal police investigations simultaneously.
Breaking Down the Numbers
According to Title IX records, Nichols received a total of 55 cumulative reports involving students during the 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21 academic periods:
14 of those reports were classified as sexually harassing behavior
18 as sexual assault
1 as sexual exploitation (recording sexual activity without consent)
5 as dating violence
1 as stalking
and 17 as concerns that fit none of the other categories (including bullying based on gender identity, unwanted texts from former partners, concerns of “creepy behavior”, and other concerns).
Of these 55 reports:
6 students filed a formal complaint
5 of those complainants requested a disciplinary process
and 3 requested an alternative resolution process.
The University proceeded with a disciplinary process (without student requests) in 3 of these cases, due to “safety concerns or other case dynamics.”
Accused students were found responsible or faced sanctions in 5 cases involving the disciplinary process.
When reports are made to Nichols, students have agency in deciding whether to move the report forward. They can file a complaint, request formal disciplinary processes, request alternative resolutions, request all of these, or none. If a student chooses none of these options, Nichols meets with the accused (with permission from the victim) to have an educational conversation, address reported concerns, and prevent recurrence.
“Students come to the Title IX office for a number of reasons,” Nichols explained. “Sometimes they report concerns about a non-student, sometimes they report concerns about another student, and sometimes, they are only seeking information or resources and do not report enough information for me to know who the other person is,” she said. Nichols is equipped to respond to instances of sexual assault on a case-by-case basis, allowing students to decide how their own situation is handled.