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University effort to combat harassment showing progress

Ryan Schmiesing, vice provost for the Office of Outreach and Engagement, updated members of the Board of Trustees Audit and Compliance Committee last week on Ohio State’s continuing efforts to build a best-in-class model Title IX program.

Schmiesing said the new office, currently titled the Office of Institutional Equity, was created following a review with the help of nationally recognized experts from the law firm Cozen O’Connor. He said the university is in the final stages of a national search for a leader for the office and expects an appointment announcement in “the coming weeks.” The new centralized reporting office will serve four goals.

“First, it’s to ensure, for every student, faculty or staff member who comes forward, a consistent and coordinated response under university policy,” he said.

The new office will also provide coordinated intake and outreach support to university community members to help them access on- and off-campus support resources and consistent information about university policy and resolution options.

Schmiesing pointed out several staffing improvements. The university hired three new intake and outreach coordinators in the fall to help students and staff understand their rights and the services available to them.

In addition, through a Victims of Crime Act grant awarded by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, the university will have two new confidential Aftercare Advocates on campus by early to mid- March. These advocates, from the Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio, or SARNCO, can help students, faculty, and staff process trauma and share information about reporting processes and campus and community resources.

The third goal is to ensure rigorous, fair and impartial review of reports by trained and experienced professionals through a process that prioritizes procedural protections for all involved. Finally, the office will monitor and address patterns and trends across campus..

The initial focus and priority has been sexual and gender-based harassment and violence, but given the combination of these issues with other protected classes, such as race, ethnicity, or disability, the objective is for the office to also include the institutional prevention of all forms of discrimination and harassment complaints.

In addition to new staff, the university now has a single Title IX reporting number and website.

The centralized approach has the support of student leadership.

“I think this new direction that we’re headed in takes away a lot of the barriers and pain points that students were facing in the past and makes it about the experience and getting access to all the care and resources available without barriers in the way,” said Undergraduate Student Government President Shamina Merchant.

The developments come at a time when U.S. Department of Education considers changes to the federal civil rights law that directs the way schools investigate sexual assault and harassment. The proposed changes would define what is considered Title IX sexual harassment and would require formal due process protections for those accused of harassment.

Alexandra Schimmer, associate vice president and deputy general counsel in the Office of Legal Affairs, said the university submitted a letter from President Michael V. Drake during the public comment period of the rule review.

“This letter recognized that while the proposed rules will likely alter the regulatory landscape in some manner, our university’s core values remain,” Schimmer said. “We are committed to preventing sexual and gender-based harassment and assault in our campus community. We are and will remain committed to providing fair and effective procedures for addressing and resolving complaints.”

Schimmer said more than 104,000 comments were submitted to the Department of Education during the public comment period, much higher than normal. She said the university is closely monitoring proposed Title IX rule changes.

Shawn Semmler, USG vice president, said Drake’s response to the rules changes and his commitment to reforming how harassment is handled on campus is welcome news.

“President Drake did an outstanding job of reaffirming that commitment to survivors here on campus, and that you matter, your experience matters and you are valued here on campus,” Semmler said. “I think that’s what President Drake reaffirmed, that’s what our student government reaffirmed and I think that’s what we’re doing with every step we are making on the Title IX side and the Office of Institutional Equity side.”