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BLACKSBURG — Their work might never be finished, but that makes sexual violence prevention all the more important, said Virginia Tech faculty spreading methods of support and intervention, and a message of hope, to students on campus.

Still, others question the breadth of universities’ responsibilities in trying cases of sexual misconduct.

Clearly defined rules are set by state and federal laws for cases of discrimination, including sexual discrimination, on college campuses, enforced through the Title IX office, said Katie Polidoro, the university’s Title IX coordinator.

“The reason why we’re here is to help address discrimination, and to help address things like sexual harassment and sexual violence,” Polidoro said. “The ways that we work to prevent those things, that has looked different over the years.”

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Title IX has been law for more than 50 years, and Polidoro has worked at Virginia Tech since 2015, but she said only in recent years has a more honest dialogue opened around sexual violence in the United States.

“We’re talking about this in public spaces in a way that maybe didn’t happen in the distant past,” Polidoro said. “There is a lot of awareness among the community about these issues. There are always questions about ‘should we be doing things differently?’”

Aside from an increase in public awareness about the component of her work dealing with sexual violence, Polidoro said perceptions of college Title IX offices also have shifted in the last 10 to 15 years.

“There was a time when folks generally thought [Title IX] was about scholarships and athletics. Certainly when I started doing this work, most people understood it to be that,” Polidoro said. “To now have that general understanding of the full scope of protections that it provides, and that really deep interest of our community, and being sure that we’re getting it right, is just fantastic.”

Even though the office is in charge of investigating and enforcing reports of discrimination, often the priority becomes connecting people who survived those encounters to support services.

“We also provide resources and support measures to our students who never choose to file a report,” Polidoro said. “It’s never a requirement that somebody files a complaint to be able to get support.”

Helping someone find that support is what keeps them from derailing off their path toward academic success, she said.

“Everybody has their own experience and their own set of needs, and is going to make their own choice about how to address what’s happened,” Polidoro said. “Our job is really to support their choices, rather than tell them what they should do.”

The Title IX office at Virginia Tech works closely with Sexual Violence Prevention Specialist Chelsea Cleary, who started the new position in February. Since then, more than 3,000 students have been talked to.

“Sexual violence is notoriously underreported. Same thing with interpersonal violence … The vast majority of reports, we’ll never know about them, because people don’t come forward,” Cleary said. “It has been a part of our culture, just human culture in general, and we still are challenged with it.”

Teaching about prevention and intervention to college students is important because people aged 18 to 24 are statistically most at-risk of sexual violence, Cleary said. Deconstructing the stigma of guilt and shame is part of the messaging.

“That information doesn’t just leave us, we get to take that with us,” Cleary said of prevention and intervention techniques they teach. “What happened to you was never your fault. There are resources for you. We believe you, and we support you.”

After presentations and workshop sessions, Cleary said students often share moments of realization.

“A lot of times I’ll have students talk to me afterward because they didn’t realize that what they were experiencing might have been a piece of harassment, or stalking, or dating violence,” Cleary said. “They knew something was wrong, but didn’t have the language to be able to say, ‘this isn’t normal, this isn’t something that just happens in a dating relationship.’”

Being student-facing and making connections with groups across campus are central to her role in preventing sexual violence, and by extension, helping stop the larger issue of interpersonal violence, Cleary said.

“These issues don’t exist in silos, they’re everywhere. But not everywhere has a presidential initiative to really tackle these issues,” Cleary said. “We want our students to feel empowered, and also feel like they have the skills to have an active role in helping to intervene when they see certain elements of these different pieces of violence showing up.”

Even in an ongoing work group convened by Virginia Tech President Tim Sands since 2021, it is students taking charge of transforming the climate and culture around sexual violence, Cleary said.

“It’s not just professionals figuring out what to do and making the prescription,” Cleary said. “It’s also us learning from our students, having our students help guide us.”

One student leader is senior Emily Busic, vice president of SAVES, an acronym for Sexual Assault and Violence Education by Students.

“We’re basically peer educators on campus,” Busic said. “I go around campus and talk to other students, mostly other student organizations, and I give presentations.”

Those presentations cover subjects like sexual violence, consent, healthy and unhealthy relationships, stalking and more, she said. Peer-to-peer education on those topics serves as a primary prevention method.

“We’re teaching people not to assault each other in the first place,” Busic said. “If you’re educated and you have a background on enthusiastic consent, and what it means when someone says ‘no,’… then you’re a lot less likely to take advantage of someone else.”

But when sexual violence does occur, trials often lead to unsatisfactory results, said Diane Toscano, an attorney and founder of Toscano Law Group, based in Virginia Beach.

One of her specialties over the past decade is representing students, both people who are victims and those who are accused, in Title IX cases across Virginia, Toscano said. It’s a confusing bit of law, for a few reasons:

“First off, Title IX regulations are constantly changing. Under each administration, they roll out new regulations or changes,” Toscano said. “For example, under Obama they changed the regulations. Then Trump got into office, he changed the regulations. Now, Biden is trying to change the regulations.”

The result is multiple different Title IX processes for every school in Virginia, with limited uniformity between universities, she said. Those differences can lead to variability of outcomes for students, even if two cases might be comparable across colleges.

“When I first started doing this 10 years ago, there was no cross-examination … Now, attorneys and advisers can cross-examine in these hearings,” Toscano said. “It’s just a constant change, which is problematic for universities to stay on top of what’s required.”

And Title IX hearings are often tried directly by universities, rather than heard formally through the court system, she said.

“In the courts … you have to prove that a person committed that offense beyond a reasonable doubt,” Toscano said. “Whereas when you’re doing Title IX with a sexual assault claim at a university, the burden of proof is either preponderance of the evidence, or clear and convincing evidence. The university gets to decide which burden they use, and not all universities use the same.”

It’s common for her student clients, whether they are pressing charges or were accused of discriminatory acts, to feel like the Title IX process has failed them, Toscano said.

“Either way, whatever side you’re on, there are clear failures to the students, and I’ve even seen students now trying to hold the schools more accountable,” Toscano said. “You see that with men bringing more [law]suits against the school for due process violations through Title IX.”

In recent years, Virginia Tech settled a number of due process-related lawsuits in U.S. District Court for Western Virginia. Other universities in Virginia, such as Washington and Lee, have settled with former students who claimed to be unfairly kicked out of school due to allegations of sexual assault.

And Toscano recently helped reach a settlement at Norfolk State University, where two football players claimed they were repeatedly hazed and sexually assaulted by upperclassmen on the football team.

“Title IX itself has been the same, but the way the procedures are and the standards continue to change,” Toscano said. “It’s going to continue to change as to which political party is in power … I don’t know how that is fixed, but I think that’s the biggest problem.”

Title IX has indeed changed a lot since it became a federal law in 1972, said Polidoro, the Tech Title IX coordinator. But despite changes to the letter of the law, its spirit remains, she said.

“How do we best keep with the spirit of Title IX, and being sure that there are equal opportunities for folks of all genders, and that we’re not discriminating on the basis of sex?” she asked. “But also, how do we most support and care for our students, our community? Changes are inevitable, but those things need to remain constant.”

Changes are taking place, and more change will happen. Not only is it inevitable, but it’s also necessary.

“Especially sexual violence, but also sexual harassment and intimate partner violence are really underreported, and that’s true nationwide,” Polidoro said. “We need to be really introspective about what are the barriers in place that make it difficult to report, and work on removing them.”

Polidoro said the focus of her office is on what a student wants to do when they come forward about their experiences with discrimination. That’s why some Title IX cases are tried on campus.

“This is our community, and we’re here for it,” Polidoro said. “It’s important that we address these things when they happen.”

State and federal laws require the school to notify local police when sexual violence occurs, she said. But people who are survivors of sexual violence choose whether to involve law enforcement.

“It’s just so important for us to provide the support and the avenue for people to be OK here at Virginia Tech,” Polidoro said. “No matter what happens, or what they choose to do when it comes to reporting to law enforcement.”

Every semester brings new students to campus, and so more work to do with preventative education. Changing, though inevitable, doesn’t happen overnight.

“So, in ways that work is long term. It’s not over as long as we can always make improvements,” Polidoro said. “I would hope that there’s never a time when we’re satisfied with our efforts.”

Inequality, violence and harassment have plagued humanity for eons, so it might not ever be realistic to completely eliminate it, Polidoro said.

Cleary, the sexual violence prevention specialist at Virginia Tech, agreed that much work awaits universities nationwide, including in Blacksburg.

“I see this as a continual commitment. It’s gonna take time,” Cleary said. “We’re in this for the long haul, and we’re going to continue to do this work for as long as we need to.”

Reported sexual assaults at the U.S. military academies increased sharply during the 2020-21 school year, as students returned to in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic.The increase continues what officials believe is an upward trend at the academies, despite an influx of new sexual assault prevention and treatment programs.Comparing the totals over the past three years, however, is tricky. The number of reports dropped at all the academies during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 school year, when in-person classes were canceled and students were sent home in the spring to finish the semester online.Although there were fewer reports that year than the previous year, one senior defense official said that based on trends the total likely would have shown an increase if students had not left early. In addition, the number of reported assaults in 2020-21 was also higher than the pre-pandemic school year of 2018-19.According to the Pentagon report released Thursday, the overall jump in cases was driven by increases at the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. There were 131 assaults reported by cadets or midshipmen in 2020-21, compared with 88 the previous year and 122 a year earlier.Of the 131, cadets at the Air Force Academy in Colorado reported 52 assaults, compared with 46 at West Point in New York and 33 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.During a visit to West Point earlier this month, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth met with academy leaders, staff members and cadets and talked about the sexual assault problem. She said they talked about the so-called Trust Program, which is led by cadets and helps train them to address sexual assault and harassment and encourage intervention when they see questionable behavior.”West Point is working hard to increase cadets’ trust in their reporting system while at the same time preventing events from happening in the first place,” Wormuth said, adding that West Point has increased resources for victims “to ensure the academy handles each case with care.”Victims at the academies are encouraged to report assaults, and at times students will come forward to talk about unwanted sexual contact that happened in the years before they started school there. If those episodes of unwanted sexual contact are included, as well as those involving students but reported by individuals outside the schools, the total sexual assault reports for 2020-21 is 161. That also is an increase over the pre-pandemic year, when there were 148.The latest increase comes as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other leaders struggle to curb sexual assaults across the military, amid escalating criticism from Capitol Hill. Lawmaker are demanding better prevention efforts and more aggressive prosecutions.Austin and others have acknowledged that while they continue to study what works and what doesn’t, they haven’t yet found the answers.Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention office, said the department is encouraged that students are more willing to come forward and report assaults, allowing victims to get help and perpetrators to be held accountable. But the leaders across the military said they are also very concerned that the trends are going in the wrong direction, and Galbreath said that while there is an unprecedented attention on the problem right now, there is “still much more work to be done.”Galbreath acknowledged that prevention efforts have been underway for years, but he said programs that may have worked in the past do not necessarily work now. He said the department is using scientific studies to narrow down what programs actually are successful.Officials also say it is difficult to determine what impact the pandemic may have had. Students returned to the academies in the fall of 2020 but faced widespread restrictions, random COVID-19 testing and a mix of online and in-person classes. In many cases bars, restaurants and other businesses around the campuses may have been closed or less accessible.A planned anonymous survey of the students, which often can provide greater insight into the problem, was not conducted in 2020 due to the pandemic. The survey normally is done every two years, and officials believe it provides a more accurate picture of assaults, harassment and unwanted sexual contact. A survey will be conducted this spring, Galbreath said.Additional reporting by the Associated Press.

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