What’s On Their Minds: Vassar’s Title IX Officers Speak to Boilerplate

This article marks the beginning of a series, bringing Boilerplate into conversation with the Title IX office at Vassar College. Our goal is to establish an open channel of communication,  so Boilerplate can continue to be a platform for student opinion while the magazine may become a liaison between the student body and Title IX. Gauging students’ concerns, we will ask the necessary questions of the office and of the process itself.

As Vassar students, we are aware of the deep chasm between the Title IX office and the student body. We see and hear many people’s understandable reluctance to even initially engage or access the process and office, because of persistent negative perceptions. We hope that can change, and we think this is a first step.

With this series, Boilerplate will attempt to create more transparency. We want to make what happens in the Title IX office—from who the officers are to what the process itself entails—as accessible as possible. This is not to say that we refuse to push back or question the institution—we will. Boilerplate seeks to explain why students are reluctant to take cases of sexual assault to the office, and how we might improve this perception, by questioning the ways universities actually handle assault—and if it’s even possible to do so well within the limitations of Title IX’s legal process. Our goal, like the goal of the Title IX office, is to make students facing assault feel safer and more supported.

From our meetings so far, we’ve seen that Dr. Rachel Pereira, Esq., the Title IX Coordinator and Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action; Brittney Denley, Esq., Assistant Director; and Jennifer Castella, Office Specialist, are compassionate, dedicated women. They seek to work within the Title IX framework to support students and faculty facing sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination. They seem to deeply and genuinely care about the wellbeing and safety of students, beyond what either of their job descriptions entail.

This article began as an introduction to these women, to show who the Title IX officers are as people. But we soon saw that Brittney and Rachel grapple internally with their job every day, as individuals doing their best to support and heal students, and as agents in a system that de-values and inherently scars those same students. We are attempting to get to the heart of that system through the individuals it employs, women who are trying to make the process livable but who are still confined to it.

We don’t have answers to fix the unfairnesses in Title IX. We are aware of the historical importance and vast benefits that the Title IX process has brought to victims of sexual assault. But as students situated on a college campus (like all other college campuses) where frequent sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination take place but go unreported, we want to situate culpability for that phenomenon away from survivors and targets, and onto the many failures of the Title IX process. We are not suggesting that students engage or disengage with the process. Rather, we are attempting to examine the process from all sides, from the interior—as in the personal lives of officers—and from the exterior, the structure itself. Students should feel free and safe to make the decision that is best for them.

 

What follows are selections of the Title IX officers’ own words. Also present in the meeting was Amanita Duga-Carroll, Director of Media Relations.

* * *

To start out, would you like to talk about yourselves and your families?

Rachel Pereira: My name is Rachel Pereira. I’m the Title IX Coordinator here at Vassar College. I also serve as the Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. Prior to coming to Vassar, I was at Drew University, where i did very similar work. Prior to that I was a prosecutor in the philadelphia district attorney’s office in the juvenile unit, and prior to that I worked and served at the New Jersey Department of Education. I was a school principal, and I was a teacher, so I kind of have this, not even circular, career, but this kind of career where I was deeply invested in the field of education and then went to law school, so I have a doctorate in education and I went to lawschool thereafter. So I am proof that you can have several different lives in one life… I was the old kid in law school… And so I think what I bring to this work is a deep understanding of education, educational philosophy, and just what it means to increase educational opportunities for people, for students, while at the same time an understanding that we can use the law as a vehicle to promulgate that.

…Some of the more interesting jobs in my life? My first job, I was a lotto girl at a corner store… I didn’t sell any winning tickets… When I was 10 years old, I had a radio show at Medgar Evers College that I produced and did everything on my own… I was a consultant for the Fair Housing Authority [in law school], where I would get an assumed name and social security number and I would go and attempt to apply for an apartment, because in this one particular area in Pennsylvania they had been denying particular single black women with children apartments, when they were attempting to rent. So I would go and I would say, “Oh, I’m Julia whoever, and I work at Target…” and fill out the application, and particularly women with young boys were being denied apartments, and so that was like a whole persona… nobody ever questioned who I was…

I have a thirteen-month-old daughter who keeps me up all night… [laughter] She is very cute… not so cute at 3 am. That’s not her peak cute time [laughter], that’s the time that I see her the most because I’m here the rest of my time. And so when I think of this work…I say all the time, if this were my kid, how would I want someone to treat this?

…So… I have this problem that Jen and Brittney know about. Whenever i’m stressed I engage in library… what do I call it? Library internet shopping? I have this terrible library habit…

Saskia Globig: Like books? Like binge book shopping?

RP: Exactly! I binge library shop.

SG: That’s amazing!

Noa Mendoza: That seems kind of healthy actually.

RP: I’m convinced that the library loan people, like, duck when they see me. [laughter] So, I was like getting near the day when my books were going to be overdue, and the librarian sent me an email and said, “I just renewed them for you.” [laughter]

* * *

Brittney Denley: My name is Brittney Denley. I am the Assistant Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. I conduct investigations on behalf of the office, and so any allegations of discrimination and harassment, including sexual misconduct, gender-based violence of any sort, domestic violence, gender based stalking… I assist in that regard. I am from Queens, NY.

RP: She graduated high school at fifteen.

BD: That’s an exaggeration, but it’s not that far off. [laughter] Sixteen… so I’ve been in school for a long time. I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to pursue work in higher ed. When I was in undergrad, I slept outside for basketball tickets as any good Blue Devil does, but I started working in the athletic director’s office there, and they gave me exposure to the gamut of issues that transpire on a college campus. I was at Duke immediately following the issues surrounding the lacrosse scandal, and so the athletics department… had just figured out how to recalibrate and make sure that students within [and outside] the athletics department would feel supported… and working on identifying issues to bridge the gap between the two…

I travel for food. I do enjoy a good food pilgrimage… I travel far and wide for a good brunch and good snacks.

Right now I am in the early stages of my career. So prior to working at Vassar I completed a fellowship with the Children’s Law Center, advocating on behalf of children who were embroiled in family/court disputes, so everything from guardianship petitions to immigration cases, where kids… had been here for a long time but their place in the US was being questioned, so we wanted to make sure they… wouldn’t be deported…. So I just really wanted to bring the skills I developed… and mesh that with my passion for higher education that I developed when I was in college, and what I wanted to cultivate when I was in law school, so this was kind of the perfect position for that.

RP: Brittany and I are also currently looking to volunteer with the Hudson Valley legal services to help out folks in the area.

NM: You two personally?

BD: Yes, because… one of the tenants of even EPI [the Engaged Pluralism Initiative] is making sure that Vassar is represented outside of the gates… that we’re engaging with folks outside of Vassar, and if we can contribute our individual capacities… we want to be able to do that. A lot of times the legal services provides help for folks that are indigent or don’t have resources to access legal representation or advice, so we want to make sure that we’re able to help folks that don’t have the resources to get help otherwise.

I don’t know… I enjoy summer concerts at Jones Beach… theater…

RP: She enjoys Beyoncé.

BD: I do enjoy Beyoncé. Every time she drops an album I break out into song…

I have a big and small family. My grandma is the oldest of fourteen siblings, so there’s a lot of us and we’ve kind of spanned across the family. And then there is kind of a core unit: there’s my parents, my stepmother, my godparents… I’m an only child, so I’ve made my friends my family, so I have a very tight knit group from college, from law school, and everybody’s just navigating…

RP: She’s more then close—she speaks to both of her grandparents and her parents every day…

BD: Yeah, they’re my team. If they don’t hear from me, it’s a problem.

 

What is your workload and what level of resources do you receive from the college? What are your hours, and how do you see your collaboration as officers?

RP: [Brittney] came to the office last year and she’s really helped to transform the reach of what we can do. I don’t say it publically often, but [to Brittney] thank you very much for your dedication to our students and our work here… It is not uncommon for you to find Brittany and I here at 1 o’clock in the morning, and so while I feel personally responsible, stuff has to get done, I need to stay and do it, she will never leave me alone. She will always stay… I would say that about Jennifer as well. I think what you’ll find—and hopefully what people will find when they do have to work with us—is that we are very very committed to anyone who comes into this office for anything and we don’t stop until it gets done.

[…]

I feel like probably a lot of the work that Brittney and I find ourselves engaged in is based on… understanding who students are and understanding what their needs are. So for example, it is not uncommon for someone to ask for their rooms to be changed, and Brittney and I are the ones who are helping them move out of their room and into the next room. Because what happens when we ask Res Life to give a student a new room? They’ll just hand you a key. And so imagine if someone just gave you a new key right now and told you to move.

SG: That’s a lot of stuff.

RP: Right? So, in the interest of making sure that the students who come before us are not even more inconvenienced with what they have to do, Brittney, Jennifer, and myself will just do whatever we have to do to just make sure that [a hypothetical student is] just taken care of. So, I think the college has done an extraordinary great job of resourcing Title IX here. When we look at not just our sister schools, but at other schools—because at this point mostly everyone has a Title IX office—the amount of resources in terms of prevention, in terms of student support services, is just enormous. And so, I think the college has done a great job with that. I think that Brittney and I probably just do a whole lot of extra stuff.

BD:

It’s a labor of love. We have just various campus involvements that I think are important to make sure that we’re not just an office that hears complaints, but also an office that is a part of whatever cultural shifts need to be made here…

But we’re not here until 1am every night!

RP: I’m too old to pull so many all-nighters!

BD: I think life sometimes requires a couple of late nights, a couple of long days, and that’s okay. And I don’t think that that’s an indication of under-resourcing, necessarily.

RP: I think it’s a function of how we spend our daytime hours, our working hours. It’s really important to us to spend our working hours—when students need us, we’re there.

BD: Compounded by the fact that in addition to the sexual misconduct stuff, we do discrimination work and we also handle cases from the full campus community, so it’s not just students, it’s staff, administrators, faculty. And so I think we certainly prioritize those instances that include offenses where people have safety concerns, particularly our students… so it’s a constant prioritization and re-prioritization.

RP: Every case is different…. Whenever anyone asks me, “How do [you] feel about working at Vassar?” I’m like, “The one thing that Vassar does really well for me as an employee is, I’m never bored.” I have yet to find one day that was like the next. Anything that I learned yesterday will not apply today. Today is brand-new. You start over today…. And so yes, we start every day with a schedule and—

BD: It changes.

RP: Yeah! Every day! But I will say, the college… in comparison to what some of our peers are doing, there’s really nothing that I would say.

 

How do you deal with the image of the office for students and families?

RP: I’ve said this prior to having a child, but I do think that it’s an enormous responsibility knowing that parents drop their most precious resource off to us every August and say, “I trust you’ll take care of this for me.” And so certainly, while the young adults here are young adults, I am acutely aware that they are connected to people who consider them their children and who have entrusted us to do the right thing by their children. That’s a weight that weighs very heavily on me, and whenever I work with students, that is what I think about and I just think about what your parents, your extended family—whoever it is that knows that you’re here—is thinking about the work that I’m doing, is thinking about how I’m treating you.

…On top of that being hard for anyone to have that discussion, I do think that we certainly keep in mind that it’s particularly hard for someone who really hasn’t navigated organizations and agencies on their own, really ever, to do that now over something like this. And so, the moral of the story is: do we advertise that? No. I don’t know how we would, other than people getting to know us, and unfortunately people get to know us under extreme circumstances… We do try to do things like tabling events…

We have… set up focus groups, particularly with some of our traditionally marginalized students, so that students can get to know us… This year we started our student Title IX committee… a wide array of students. We got tons of applicants, which was really great, people are really interested, and so

…our hope is that people will get to know us when they don’t have to see us under such stressful circumstances… Our hope is that after someone has an experience with us, they can say that we were nice people.

BD: Rachel mentioned tabling and that may seem like a small thing, but I think that the primary event we participate in is for students in the Villard Room, the welcome event, and in my experience with the first one was uncomfortable, because people come over with their families and their parents and they’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they just moved in, and they’re like, “Oh, what’s EOA and Title IX?” and you’re like, “Well, I respond to allegations of—” and “I handle—” and we get into this space, and I think no one wants to think about the realities behind gender-based discrimination and sexual assault on campus when they’re moving their most prized possession into campus… But I think that visibility that Vassar College has an office that devotes their attention to these issues, even when they are trying to keep their minds on the positive things, is actually an important thing…l

I do remember when I moved for my first year of college, freshman orientation events about consent, and they were primarily student-run, and then you had the conversation about policy, and just recognizing… that this is a prevalent issue on campus, at the forefront—even if you don’t come back to it at a later time—knowing that it’s there is, I hope, somewhat comforting for the students and their families. I also think that being transparent about the information we have, making sure that our websites and the information we disclose with regard to climate surveys, etc.—we’re not hiding behind anything. We put everything out there so that if folks want to seek out what it is that we do, what we’re here for, who we service, etc… that information is available.

RP: I think you were here, Saskia, this year we attempted to have an open-house.

BD: We didn’t attempt, we successfully had an open-house!

SG: I was the only student there.

RP: When you were here! We had some other students.

[…]

And that’s the thing, right? We try to reach out to students to say, “Come by, let’s talk.” I really would like to move us to a place where we are talking more about student needs, about safety on campus, rather than just dealing with incidents. And so I feel like the only way that we can do that is if we’re continually having conversations with students. We have open office hours twice a month here, where we invite people to just come in. Let’s just talk.

We’re hoping to have those conversations with people so that we can move us to a place where we’re not just being reactionary, and rather we are working strategically to keep conversations going about permanent safety here.

 

Do you think the system is fair?

BD: I think in my experience with it, it has been fair. I think that from the outset of receiving a report, we speak with the complainant, we identify any support resources they need, we provide them with a full gamut of options for how they wanna process this. So we say, even if somebody comes in at the outset, they don’t have to go through a formal process. It’s totally up to them. If they do wanna go through a formal process, we make sure that the information is outlined appropriately as to what that’s gonna look like, for both parties.

We present both parties with the opportunity to identify witnesses; we present both parties with the opportunity to identify any documentary or testimonial evidence—when I say testimonial I mean you would, you know, speak—evidence as to why an act did or did not happen, or did or did not happen in the way that it’s initially described. We provide both parties with an outline of the procedures that will follow for our hearing; we provide both parties with an opportunity to review and refute anything that’s been said by the other person or by any witnesses; we provide both parties the opportunity to participate in the hearing to the extent that they want to, with any parameters that they require in place; we provide both parties the opportunity to question each other, to question the investigator, provide any additional information that didn’t come out during the investigation at the hearing, and the opportunity to confront that. We provide both parties the opportunity to identify and question witnesses that they want at the hearing. Everybody comes to the table with the same rights with respect to the presentation of information and the receipt of information.

In addition to that, we have the lowest possible evidentiary standard, and so the standard that we use in our matters are “preponderance of evidence.” To the extent that you’ve kept your ear to what’s happening at the federal level with the guidance on Title IX, the old guidance on Title IX from 2011 has been rescinded. New guidance has been put in place where colleges can raise the standard of evidence, if they want to, to “clear and convincing,” which is harder to prove. We don’t have that and we don’t have any intention to change it as far as I know.

Up to this point, we’re using the lowest possible standard of evidence, and that just means “a tipped scale.” So everybody comes in, balanced, and if the scale is tipped ever so slightly in the favor of the complainant, then the person is found responsible. So it’s a very, very low evidentiary standard. You don’t have to come in and prove anything “beyond a reasonable doubt,” you don’t have to come in and not have any holes poked in what you’re saying. You can come in and have twenty holes poked in your complaint, and still, the person can be found responsible because of the way the evidence tips ever to slightly in your favor.

I don’t know what, in terms of equity, and in terms of equality, with respect to what we share and what we afford the parties, I don’t know how we can stand to improve that, but I’m open to ideas.

Because I recognize that we’re coming to the table presenting everybody the same opportunities, I don’t know how we can improve that.

With that said, because a lot of these cases end up lacking in physical evidence—so, you’re not dealing with cases where folks have gone and gotten a rape kit done at a hospital and evidence has been preserved in that way—or because we don’t have a lot of hard evidence to look at, we are looking at things like correspondences between two people within the same friend group, or just general testimonial stuff that you can’t necessarily weigh as clearly as you would be able to if you had physical evidence, which is why we really, really are—or, I’m really in favor of using an adjudicator who knows how to weigh evidence. It’s not somebody who is partial by design, it’s someone who knows how to be impartial by design because they’ve done that professionally for years on the federal bench. Even when the evidence is close, they know how to deal with the preponderance in a way that someone who doesn’t have that long-standing experience would know how to do as well.

 

How do you weigh claims from both sides? What is your idea of “appropriate justice?”

RP: When I say it’s hard to have a positive experience, I guess what I’m talking about is just the act of talking about this.The act of following through with reporting is really, really difficult. That said, when people have a hearing, we give you breakfast, we give you lunch, we ask you, “What room do you wanna be in?” We try to make it as survivor-centered as possible, while understanding the needs, also—that we have another party.

We give people their own room to take a break whenever they want. We obviously pick the date based on whether or not students can make it. We give them an opportunity to call in additional witnesses. You know, it’s a tough experience, right? It’s hard. I’m hoping that maybe the student advisory committee this year might be able to share some information on how they think… we can make it better.  

There are some things that we just need to do, right? We need to give the other side an opportunity to be heard. We can’t get around that. And, by the way, whoever you consider the other side, right? If you’re the respondent, you don’t want to hear from the complainant, either. We have to give them an opportunity to be heard. It’s difficult to have that conversation.

BD: And in terms of people not being happy at the end, I think it’s important to note that it’s gonna be difficult—you’re not gonna come out of it where both people are happy.

I don’t think there’s any structural change that can happen, because I think that most of what folks are looking for is a particular outcome.

The person who brings the complaint is looking for the outcome to be that the other person is found responsible, and then that they receive the highest penalty possible. The person who is responding to the complaint wants to be found not-responsible and doesn’t wanna have to go through any of this at all. While I don’t think that there is a scenario in which both people will be happy, what we hope is that in the scenario, both people will be able to say that we handled it fairly, that we gave them the opportunity to be heard, and that given what was heard, the outcome was appropriate. I think that that’s the best-case scenario—well, that’s the ideal scenario in a lot of cases. I think best-case scenario, the person who brought the complaint feels that they’ve received the appropriate level of justice, but I think that that’s often tied to whether or not they got the outcome that they wanted. And the outcome is gonna be case-by-case.

RP: What I would also say, particularly on college campuses, [is that] most of the cases we hear are between two people who know each other. Particularly at Vassar, we’re not talking about… someone who jumped out of the bushes and attacked a stranger. So, what makes it even more difficult, particularly on a small campus, is that now, you are bringing an allegation or you have been alleged to have done something against someone that you know. And it’s hard. It’s hard. The pressure around what mutual friend groups will think is high.

BD: To that, the wholistic impact doesn’t sit only with our office. Because the complete experience of a student, perhaps surrounding what happens here but also just in general, is shaped by so much that happens outside of these doors. Social ostracization from classes, from student groups, that also shapes a person’s experience, whether they be the complainant or the respondent.

RP: So just what does that mean, when people live, work, play together, and then now there’s this schism?

BD: But what I will say is that considering everyone else, everyone’s other campus involvements, we try to regard that in conducting our investigation, in formulating any necessary sanctions, in providing any protective measures. So we recognize that this isn’t just an event that happened in a silo, or a series of events that happened in a silo; we consider the other ways in which the person is impacted on and around campus, and we try to collaborate with the students and with any offices that would be helpful in making sure that the wholistic experience—even if it doesn’t result in the outcome that you want in the end—the wholistic negative impact is as minimal as possible.

SG: I’ve heard justice theories that say, why can’t “appropriate justice” just be the outcome that the survivor wants? I’ve heard people say that whatever the survivor wants—as somebody who’s been hurt that severely in that way—should take precedence, that their needs should be assumed maybe more pressing or more urgent, and that their version of the truth should be taken very seriously. The outcome they want would then be equivalent to the appropriate justice.

RP: So we do take that into consideration, and if there’s a finding of responsibility, the complainant does have the opportunity to provide what’s called an impact statement, to share how the experience has impacted their experience and their life, and looking at our sanctioning parameters, to share, “I feel that X would be appropriate, given this finding of responsibility.” Can I say that we do exactly what the complainant would say must be done? No. Eventually, the Dean of the College and the Dean of Students are the ones who impose the sanction, but is it taken under consideration? Absolutely. But the college does have sanction guidelines, right? So, we must act within those guidelines. Sometimes people suggest things that are just outside of those guidelines.

BD: I just want to add to that. With respect to what the survivor gets for themselves, there are processes outside of a sanctioning process, outside of a formal Title IX investigatory process, in which the survivor does get exactly what they want. So if they’re seeking support services, if they’re seeking counseling services or anything in that regard, then yes, you get exactly what you want in order to aid your healing process, in order to make sure that you’re able to navigate the campus community.

When you’re entering a space in which you want action to be taken against somebody else, we can’t just say, “Well, your version is going to guide what we do to someone else.” We have to provide them with an opportunity to present information, because it’s going to affect that other person, as well. And so, no questions are asked with regard to providing support to the individual survivor, themselves, but if the process that we’re following is gonna impact someone else, then we can’t just have a process that only hears one person but impacts another.

 

Does your job ever frustrate you?

BD: Oh, every day! Every day.

RP: I would say it’s frustrating to me because it’s difficult to see people in pain, right? It’s hard to see people in pain, and people walk through this door when they’re in pain… I think one of the other frustrating things—I don’t think it’s a job that ever gets turned off. And so honestly I can’t say that there’s an hour, in a 24-hour period—because it haunts me in my sleep—that you’re not thinking about that student. That student.

BD: Your wheels are constantly spinning, thinking, “Did I do everything that I could do to help everyone involved? Did I do everything that I could do maintain a high level of integrity? Did I do everything that I could do within the parameters of my ethics? Did I do everything that I could do to make sure this person is safe? Did I do everything that I could do?”

…They came in, they gave me their problem, and they trusted I’m gonna be able to handle it. … Typically what people want is, “I’ve been harmed, this is the outcome that I want.” Am I gonna be able to give this to that person? Are there other things that need to be considered? And typically there always are other things that need to be considered. And so, it’s frustrating to question. Repeatedly. All the time.

RP: Particularly with of our cases—unless someone comes in and says, “Yes, I did that”—the accused person believes they’ve been harmed, as well. Right? …And so you’re always like, “Am I ruining this person’s experience here? Whose life am I ruining?”

…I will stand behind this: these four years, you never get them back, right? You can have a million graduate degrees in your life, and I’m here to tell you you can, but you never get these four years back. And for the most part we generally have two students in front of us, both of whom are saying, “What I’m going through, why I’m talking to you now, is ruining my four years here, and how are you going to fix that?” Unless the person who is the alleged perpetrator says, “Oh yeah I did it.” Most people don’t say that. Most people say, “Oh my god. You just accused me of something horrible that I did not do, and now this is going to mar my next four years here.”

BD: But above the frustration, I think it’s rewarding to be in a position where you can ask those questions and answer them. So, did I do everything that I could to make sure this was ethical? I can run through the checklist and I can say, “Yeah, I did.” Or, “I need to fix.” Or, “I need to follow up.” And to know that I work with people and that I myself prioritize those things, and am in a position to serve a campus community, while considering those things—while it is frustrating because, you know, it’s just the challenge of the work, it’s the inherent challenge of the work and it’s more rewarding than anything else, I would say.

RP: We have weekly check-ins with the three of us here where we go through every case that’s currently open. What are we doing? What should we be doing? What could be done more? …just where is everybody? …We try to minimize how much outreach we need to do, particularly for students who don’t wanna have to hear from us… you know, “gone but not forgotten”… After every hearing we have, we sit down: “What happened? Next time, how do we make it better?” I mean, even for things like lighting. The entire gamut of “How did that just go?” and “If we had to do it again….” So certainly, who the adjudicator was, how we conducted ourselves… just, the whole thing. The whole thing. So, even when people aren’t hearing from us, it’s never gone.

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