Dance Professor Jennifer Smith knows how harrowing the experience of sitting on the Grievance Panel can be. Long weekends through a term are spent in meetings that may extend beyond 13 hours in a single day. Along with the time commitment, the student, faculty and staff members on the panel must learn extensive details about the alleged violation from defendant, complainant and the numerous witnesses brought in from both sides of the situation. For the past few years, Knox has been considering revising the current Grievance Panel system. They aren’t alone: according to Dean of Students Deb Southern, of liberal arts schools using systems similar to Knox around the nation, 75 percent are thinking of making changes.
President Teresa Amott has already shared the national recommendation from the OCR to take students off the Grievance Panel. In conjunction with considering this, the college is also considering a partial shift away from members of the Knox community evaluating the information and creating a conclusion from what evidence they gather.
Instead, the college is looking into the investigative model of handling grievance cases. This would entail hiring a trained investigator, typically a lawyer specializing in Title IX cases. This investigator would talk to all the people involved, just as the current Grievance Panel does. Once they hear all sides of the story, they create a report and present their findings on whether or not they found a Title IX violation. These findings then go the Dean of Students and the Dean decides what sanctions should be put in place as a result. The defendant and complainant have the right to try for an appeal.
For Smith, the investigative model seems the best solution. An outside investigator would have a more objective viewpoint and would not know the persons involved. This person would also be extensively trained in how to evaluate the evidence. For instance, panelists encountering inconsistencies in stories, whether it be between the two parties or one party revising its stance through the process, don’t always know how to react and address these inconsistencies.
Bringing in an outsider may also help create a happier community. Smith stated that it can be difficult to encounter people involved with the case again in everyday life, whether they be in a professor’s classroom or a student’s dorm. Using the investigative model, “We can be a support mechanism [for students], instead of a judge and jury.”
However, there are drawbacks. Student Senate President senior Hiba Ahmed said, “I think that the student body is going to have a lot of discomfort about having an outside investigator.” Ahmed pressed the issue students in Student Senate discussed about losing a voice in the process and having someone who isn’t in touch with the campus environment.
A worry about the hefty cost of attorneys also arises. There is a potential for four or five cases occurring in a single term, and each would need its own attorney to collect information and produce a report. Amott argued that the school is already spending valuable time and resources on combating these issues. She stated she would rather spend money on creating a better system that won’t lead to problems and changing campus culture than handling the some 23,000 pages of information the college had to send to the OCR in a preliminary report on its Title IX activities of the last three years.
Another element to consider is the value of timeliness. The process of needing to relive an emotionally charged experience is difficult enough for students. Waiting for weeks to know the result of their case is also very trying on their mental health. The OCR recommends that cases are opened and closed within 60 days, but with the current model this is an extremely hard task when professor and student schedules must be aligned for case hearings to take place. With an attorney, this person would have his or her full focus on working through the case.
“This isn’t something we want to forget about,” Amott said, hoping students won’t see this model as a way of ignoring the serious grievances occurring on campus. Instead, the college wishes to be as open as possible as it moves forward. It will soon be hosting forums so students may be involved step by step in the review process for the Grievance Panel throughout the year.