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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)

 

NASHVILLE — Nearly a year after settling a $2.48million lawsuit that brought intense national scrutiny to sexual assaults at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, campus officials on Saturday released a long-promised special review of its sexual assault policies.

The 28-page report, written by a committee of four independent experts hired by UT President Joe DiPietro, outlines concerns and recommendations drawn from interviews with leaders and students across the college system.

DiPietro said he would move forward with the experts' recommendation to hire a statewide coordinator for policies related to Title IX, the federal law that guides campuses on sexual discrimination and violence responses. He said he hoped to have that position filled by the end of the year.

Among the independent commission's four other "major recommendations:"

  • Adding additional TitleIX staff and resources
  • Updates and modifications to policy and procedures
  • Enhancing supports for students
  • Additional education, prevention and training efforts

DiPietro said it was too early to say how the system would respond . He and his staff received the report Thursday and were continuing to review it.

Knoxville Chancellor Beverly Davenport said the most pressing challenges facing UT are not just financial.

"One of the most challenging things is culture," Davenport said. "We can get our policies and practices in order ... but changing the culture in which these kinds of practices happen - that's a cause for concern for all of us."

Athletics a central focus

The Knoxville athletics department was central to allegations in the Title IX federal lawsuit that spurred the report. The lawsuit claimed the department fostered a culture that enabled sexual assaults, and that the campus disciplinary process that favored accused athletes over alleged victims.

In its settlement, the university did not admit to any wrongdoing.

The experts' review noted that the athletics department staff had demonstrated a "heightened awareness" of the importance of following sexual assault reporting procedures. The report recommended that work remain ongoing, stating: "continued targeted focus in this area should continue."

System is 'difficult to navigate'

The four-member panel was given complete independence to do its work, DiPietro said. They conducted 65 interviews and follow-up conversations with 52 administrators and staff. They also conducted a series of focus groups at UT campuses in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Martin.

Panel members did not review individual disciplinary cases or seek out interviews with students accused of misconduct or those who alleged they were victims of sexual assault.

They instead held "listening sessions" that were open to students and gave individuals, including victims, the opportunity to request private interviews, DiPietro said.

"Students, faculty, and staff reported that due to its length and what many described as a legalistic approach, they found the (Knoxville campus') Policy to be difficult to navigate," the report said.

The report also noted "frustration" with a campus disciplinary process conducted under Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedures Act after sexual assaults have been reported.

The process is unique to Tennessee and allows accused students to appear before an administrative law judge. But the process can lead to long delays that exceed the 60-day time frame recommended by the federal government for wrapping up student misconduct cases.

The lawsuit singled out the process for causing unnecessary delays that left accusers waiting, sometimes for months, for resolution while accused students remained on campus and, in the case of athletes, on the field.

Panelists recommended that the university system create a consistent way to evaluate whether accused students can continue to be involved in extracurricular activities during the protracted process.

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June 19, 2017
 
 
 

 

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