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UW Warns Against Federal Changes To Sexual Misconduct Guidelines

Tennessee Watson
University of Wyoming students walked out of class in 2017 to draw attention to the administration's handling of sexual assault.

Two years ago, this February, University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols launched a sexual misconduct task force. This fall the group, more commonly known as the NO MORE Campaign, released a five-year strategic plan that calls for changes like more bystander intervention training and increased support for survivors in the aftermath of an assault.

Those efforts have been complicated by proposed changes to federal guidelines brought forward by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Wyoming Public Radio's education reporter Tennessee Watson sat down with Sean Blackburn, the UW Vice President of Student Affairs, to check in on the process.

Tennessee Watson: One of the first big steps was this campus climate survey and students were asked about their experiences with sexual misconduct while at UW. That included things like rates of victimization, trying to get a handle on attitudes about sexual misconduct on campus, and asking students about their confidence in the reporting process. How has that data shifted your perspective on how to address sexual misconduct?

Sean Blackburn: Now having campuswide data on all those topics you just mentioned really has allowed us now to say: "OK, how do we begin to move this needle? What are campus specific issues?"

So, that climate survey created our five-year strategic plan. Every element of the five-year No More Strategic Plan ties back to an element of the climate survey and ties back to an element of what we would consider to be best practices and truly data informed interventions. Interventions that on other campuses have helped them move the needle.

TW: So, in the midst of these two years of the  No More campaign, the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been proposing changes to the federal guidelines as they pertain to how colleges should handle sexual misconduct. Has that caused any uncertainty for you and for the University of Wyoming in this process of trying to plan into the future?

SB: So, not long after [DeVos] issued that guidance we began pulling together staff on campus to study this. In fact, the president's No More group, we have an executive steering committee. That group has been meeting on and off to pore through all of the recommended guidance and really identify: If this is implemented as is, what that would require UW to do and where we would head?

There is a little bit of angst. We don't know when updated guidance would come out [or] whether we'll go through another round of review, or whether or not we'll be told to implement in 30 days. If the guidance comes out and we're told to implement within 30 days that will be stressful for I think every institution in this country to implement.

TW: Going back to the campus climate survey, one thing in that study that jumped out at me was that there were students who were survivors that didn't feel great about the process, and [there's] this sort of lack of trust or confidence in the university's ability to hold folks accountable. Over the course of these two years, have there been things that you've seen that make you feel like through this process you're gaining some of that trust and confidence back from students?

SB: We hope so. We believe so. We have really dialed into every step of the process. What are the drivers for how a survivor would feel coming through this process? It is a hard process. This guidance, if it is implemented, might make that even more challenging.

The example I would give you is requirements for live hearings. If the final guidance directs us to have to force everyone to be together in the room that's going to be really traumatic and difficult for a lot of survivors. We're hoping the Department of Education listens to us and others who've said, "give us some flexibility; video conferencing, teleconferencing, barriers." There are a lot of good reasons to have as many people in the room together, but it is really difficult for survivors. So, there's a couple of pieces like that, that would make it even more challenging to get survivors through our process in the least traumatizing way we can.

TW: So, is there anything else about the proposed changes that's concerning for you?

SB: I think another item we're paying a lot of attention to is the question of jurisdiction. Part of this guidance appears to narrow universities and colleges into only what occurs on their campus. You know only about 20 to 25 percent of our student population at the University of Wyoming lives on campus. Nationally most sexual assault occurs off-campus. So, if there is a final guidance that really directs us to not interact on off-campus sexual misconduct, that will put another barrier between us and survivors in addressing this issue on campus.

TW: It seems like an important issue because even if the sexual misconduct were to happen off-campus those two students could end up potentially sitting in the student union together or even in the same classroom.

SB: Correct. Sexual misconduct is one of those things that when it happens it impacts each student's friends, their communities. They often do come back on to campus and interact in all kinds of ways; socially, academically, recreationally. So yes, sexual misconduct is one of those topics that comes back to campus and impacts everybody.

TW: Sean Blackburn is the Vice President for Student Affairs. Thank you for your time.

SB: Thank you so much. We appreciate you focusing on this topic. It is a critical campus topic.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.

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