title ix

Inside a Training Course for Campus Sexual-Assault Officers

Photo: ENZO FIGUERES/Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Over the past couple months, naming and shaming has worked fairly well to clean up sexual harassment in the workplace. Important men are losing their jobs. And yet, in the midst of this deluge in outing workplace assaulters, sexual assault at college campuses is mired in a dirgelike debate about whether college disciplinary boards are weighted in favor of the accuser or accused. Betsy DeVos, conservatives, and some journalists have argued that innocent boys are being railroaded by these panels. According to them, university officers who judge these cases are supposedly too dumb to figure out who is guilty and who is not, or are unable to set aside their need to protect their institutions, which are deathly afraid of being tarred as too easy on assaulters or being known as “the rape school.”

At a conference at a Sheraton hotel in Philadelphia two years ago, I met many officers in charge of deciding sexual assault cases, and I have a very different impression. Five hundred of these folks came to Philly for skills-building and camaraderie, as well as to attend paid training courses. On campuses around the country, their job is to investigate sexual assault and sometimes judge the cases in hearings too, issuing verdicts of guilty or no. Some of them started off with another role at their colleges, like human resources officer, and were told to take on this responsibility. But more and more, they are former criminal prosecutors and police detectives who are lured by a good salary: upwards of $75,000 or more a year — on par with most tenured professors.

There’s no national data about how well universities are doing with regard to sexual assault. We don’t know how many guys are punished, or what those punishments are, and we don’t have access to any of the court proceedings besides those that leak to the media. All that’s public are the number of incidents reported at each university per year. That number, by the way, could fit on the head of a pin. Despite the nation’s 20 million college students, fewer than 7,000 sexual-assault incidents were reported to colleges in 2014. The people at the Sheraton in Philly that weekend are largely the ones who decided whether those assaults were real or fake.

Inside the Sheraton’s city-block-length ballroom, the group is munching on pastries at circular tables draped with white linen. To be successful in their investigations and their assessments of their cases, these officers must understand the cultural environment in which students swim. A large mounted screen begins to play the music video for Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” Blonde curls to her shoulders, Swift, boogying in front of a fairytale castle, falls in love with a guy and then destroys him, cutting the pockets out of his Paul Smith shirt, setting his clothes on fire, and hitting his car with a golf club. “‘You know I love the players / and you love the game,’” she sings.

This, the speaker at the lectern explains, is negative relationship modeling. “It’s all around us,” the speaker says. “Our movies, our music, our TV shows. And let’s not even talk about the influence of social media … I encourage you to put the apps your students are using on your phone. One of the apps took a picture of me when I downloaded it, and I went into panic mode thinking my students would be able to see me, so beware of that.”

The conference has an impressively well-rounded program, with dozens of panels – including one of defense attorneys who represent accused students. “We get that you’re dealing with literally a sexy issue, the zeitgeist has caught up with you, and you’re under pressure from all sides,” says an attorney, addressing the group and a chortling a little bit at her double-entendre. “Relax, and breathe.” Another panel on managing risk and liability, draws so many attendees they move to a room three times the size. “Can university adjudicators be found personally liable in Title IX cases?” a man asks nervously from the audience. The speaker laughs and then assuages his fears: “Very unlikely.”

At a session entitled Building a Diverse and Comprehensive Title IX Investigative Team, three administrators in lightweight suits from a Texas university use football analogies: “barriers to the end zone,” reads one slide; “building your fantasy team”; “scoring a touchdown.”

“The word we’re told is to be objective — well, this isn’t objective at all, so I have a problem with that word,” say the women, some of whom are from the Fitness and Recreation department, addressing the packed room with surprising frankness. “Let’s do what we need to do: understand what winning is at our institutions, and then win.” A question from the audience: “What do you do about compensation for” junior members in the office? “Wait, I thought I was only getting softball questions!” she says, laughing. “Well, they’re not paid extra for the work. And there is friction over that.” “May I ask the room: Is this typical?” the audience member asks. A hoot goes up. “All right, I was hoping to hear differently …” he says, shaking his head.

The master of ceremonies this weekend is Brett Sokolow, a lawyer who founded the Association of Title IX Officers, the group putting on this conference. Sokolow is in his mid-forties, with deep brown eyes fringed with heavy lashes, a Pat Buchanan–size head, and a brash confidence. He doesn’t lead panels this weekend, but he does lead a pricey training session, alongside a female colleague, on how to investigate sexual assault. They talk in a loose, tangent-friendly fashion about best practices, shortcuts and pitfalls, methods of proficiency, and professionalism.

The best administrators can do, Sokolow tells his audience, is be impartial, fair. An equitable process can withstand scrutiny. “Your work will be reviewed by some administrator or panel. It will then potentially go to a hearing, then potentially to an appeal,” he says, his head bobbing at the front of the room. “Then your president and your board of trustees — even though that’s not an official level of appeal — they’ll have something to say about it if it’s controversial. Then the front page of the newspaper, Office for Civil Rights, the judge and the jury. They are your audience — no pressure.” He spreads his arms wide. “If, at the end of day, they look at what you did and say, ‘Hey, I see where they came to that conclusion. I agree with it,’ then you’ve done what you needed to.” Now he becomes serious. “If they find anything that makes you look like a fool, well, we’re not going to want to be made to look like a fool.”

Today Sokolow teaches the group the two main steps of justice. Step one is a search for proof. An administrator must put biases aside and accumulate what evidence they can without a subpoena. Surveillance, texts, and social media data increasingly factor into cases: video monitors, “outcry” social media messages posted by someone who just been assaulted. “Someone texted someone something,” says Sokolow’s deputy. “There was an Uber driver. There was someone checking IDs at the door. There was a phone call someone made. There’s usually something.” At the same time, Sokolow admits, “smoking guns are really few and far between.”

Sokolow’s tips are largely Investigative Journalism 101 and Private Investigation 101, which tend to be the same thing: be thorough, reliable, impartial, prompt, and fair. Get off your butt. Visit the location of the alleged sexual assault to check out the acoustics, the lighting. Arrive early to interviews with students, because there’s only one chance to establish rapport. Leave no stone unturned, no witness un-interviewed. Document everything. Type up notes promptly. Print every email and put it in a folder.

Step two is punishing provable acts to the full extent of university law. On this, Sokolow holds the line. “I am the hanging judge on sanctions,” he says, taking on the unforgiving tone of a vigilante. “For those of you student affairs folks in the room, spouting Abraham Maslow or “Adventures of This and That,” encouraging students’ maturation … so that their behaviors align with values, I get what you do. And I respect it deeply. But you have to stop trying to educate and rehabilitate sex offenders. Because that is not your job. That is not developmental.”

As in the first panel, the one with the Taylor Swift video, Sokolow’s panel strives to make sure that these officers become “culturally competent’ in their language, to deal with kids and sex. “Does anyone know what FOMO means?” asks his deputy.

The room is silent, and her face takes on a horrified look, perhaps for real, perhaps for show. Sokolow tells the audience that they must build “cultural competency” and explains the acronym: fear of missing out. He scans the crowded room. “Go back to your room tonight, stand in front of a mirror, and say, ‘penis and vagina’ over and over again until it’s not a big deal. Please do. Because if you’re awkward about it, the students will sense it, and they’ll be awkward about it.”

Campus justice is not perfect. Neither is the criminal justice system, which, by the way, doesn’t have a great track record with prosecuting assault, and qualifies the more minor-league sexual assault and harassment that’s been coming out since Harvey Weinstein’s unmasking as barely a misdemeanor. The campus court system is a half-step. When you’re found guilty, you don’t go to jail. You do lose your education if you’re expelled, and that is a big deal, but it’s certainly not the same as a criminal record. Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law & Policy at Stetson University College of Law and a thought leader on campus safety issues, tells me that he thinks many universities are handling assault cases well. “Everyone wants to read about failure and redemption, but the end of this story is the most boring [story] ever written. After years of fuss and thunder,” he says, we will eventually learn that universities were much more thorough and fairer than the public perception of their abilities.

I did learn about one significant problem with campus justice at this conference. Several folks tell me something along the lines of, “Title IX cases can sometimes get political, and there’s pressure.” A trustee’s son is accused, an important athlete is accused. It’s your Title IX case, and you supposedly have the authority to decide it. But suddenly you’re getting calls and pressure from the chancellor or someone in the top ranks pushing for a certain outcome. Political.

This is what we need to worry about — high-profile cases. Those are the ones that might not be decided fairly. This is most often an issue with college football, the least-well-kept and by far the dirtiest secret of administrative cover-ups at universities. These high-revenue-producing teams are ever more isolated and sequestered on campus, a privileged class of indentured servants who bring in about as much income as pro sports teams in the NBA and NHL.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not comfortable arguing that all Title IX officers are good at their jobs. They can be biased and they can make mistakes. But every officer I spoke with at the conference seems like a careful listener, an astute observer. They believe themselves to be in a fascinating existential position, and a critical one, as they seek to shape America’s young population in an important stage of life. “Law school, that shit was not exciting, but now I love my job, and I am never bored,” one tells me, talking about connecting with students in his off-hours. Without self-deprecating irony, he also shares what’s actually quite a common sentiment. “These young people have problems because they live unattended! They must be guided. We must guide them.”

Adapted from BLURRED LINES: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Copyright © 2017. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Inside a Training Course for Campus Sexual Assault Officers