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<h5>201 Nassau St. houses the Office of Gender Equity and Title IX Administration.</h5>
<h6>Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
201 Nassau St. houses the Office of Gender Equity and Title IX Administration.
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

Choosing between a months-long investigation and informal resolution, sexual assault survivors face a dilemma

Content warning: The following article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.

If you or a friend have experienced sexual misconduct and are in need of assistance, Princeton has a number of resources that may be of use. You can also reach SHARE, Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education service at 609-258-3310. 

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All student names in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.

In the fall of 2021, Beth, an undergraduate, woke up in her dorm room, knowing something was deeply wrong. “I woke up with this feeling of complete worthlessness,” Beth recalled. 

She went to the bathroom, where she discovered she was bleeding.

“I knew then that I had engaged in sexual activity the night before,” she said. She stood shaking in the shower for over half an hour.

There had been multiple parties, a night of dancing and drinking before everyone went home for fall break. Beth had blacked out, and the next morning, she couldn’t remember significant parts of what had happened.

Some memories came back throughout the day. She remembers the man she went home with taking off a condom without her permission, and later on beginning to engage in a form of sex she didn’t consent to. Most of the night remained obscure to her. She felt physical discomfort, “a ripping feeling,” over the next few days.

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It wasn’t until talking to a close friend that Beth was able to identify what had happened to her as sexual assault. A representative of the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE) office walked Beth through the various options available to her — and Beth decided to pursue the formal Title IX grievance procedures laid out by the University’s Title IX Sexual Harassment Policy.

*** 

In the 2019–20 school year, 19 cases were adjudicated through the route Beth took: a formal process under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that protects people from sex-based discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal funding.

Yet by 2021, when Beth filed her case, the University’s policies had shifted. Updated federal regulations required colleges to provide a live hearing in all Title IX cases. The University had also established a new informal process in which the two parties could negotiate a mutual agreement, which it refers to as an “alternate resolution.” On a voluntary basis, students can agree to arrangements and terms such as participation in behavioral training or restrictions from certain extracurriculars. However, the process cannot result in disciplinary consequences like suspension or probation, though parties can be disciplined for breaking a finalized and signed agreement.

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Since the implementation of these policy changes, the number of students who have pursued the formal Title IX process at Princeton has dropped sharply. Over the course of the 2021–22 school year, only three cases were concluded through the formal Title IX process; Beth’s was one of them. Instead, 16 students pursued alternate resolutions.

The trade-off is stark. The formal process offers a chance at disciplinary justice, but requires months of interviews and investigation before culminating in a live hearing. The alternate resolution process concludes much more quickly, but with all terms requiring the agreement of the alleged perpetrator.

In interviews with The Daily Princetonian, five students shared their experiences with the formal Title IX and alternate resolution processes, detailing months-long investigations, upsetting interviews, and unsatisfactory negotiated agreements.

By interviewing these students, experts on Title IX, campus activists, and University officials, as well as examining troves of documents supplied by the individuals who went through the processes, the ‘Prince’ sought to reconstruct the complex nature of the dilemmas these survivors face. For one student, the formal Title IX process proved to be flawed but still provided some justice. Another said she was ultimately driven to leave Princeton by the experience. Others chose to pursue alternate resolutions instead — to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The University defended its processes: “We work to provide a range of supports and options to students who report experiences of sexual misconduct — regardless of whether they choose to pursue a formal grievance process, the alternate resolution process, or neither,” wrote Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter, in a statement emailed to the ‘Prince.’

“The choice of whether to proceed with the formal grievance process or the alternate resolution process is a very personal one, and complainants balance the opportunity to share their experience and have an impartial factfinder determine whether University policy was violated against a much shorter process that does not require them to answer questions regarding the allegations,” Minter added. “Since it was introduced in 2020, most complainants have chosen the alternate resolution process, and it has successfully resulted in the parties reaching agreement on terms in the overwhelming majority of matters.”

***

Beth began the formal process, which would ultimately take eight months, during which she was interviewed multiple times by investigators, asked to compile evidence such as medical and phone history records, and questioned by an attorney during a live hearing presided over by a former judge.

Months earlier, Jessica, another undergraduate, was talking to a SHARE peer when she realized that an experience might have been “more than just a bad hookup.” She had engaged in sexual activity with another undergraduate and described it as an uneasy experience that she wanted “to be done with.” She said she felt him pressuring her into things that made her “physically uncomfortable.” 

Yet after Jessica filed a formal complaint, her experience diverged sharply from Beth’s. Jessica chose the alternate resolution. For her, an agreement was signed within a month. She avoided some of the lengthier aspects of the formal procedure; however, she found enforcement of the agreed terms imperfect. Other students who spoke to the ‘Prince’ emphasized how the voluntary nature of the terms and lack of disciplinary consequences make possible outcomes of alternate resolutions significantly more limited for victims.

How we got here

In 2020, the University’s Title IX system faced significant pressure from both students advocating for reform and pending changes to federal regulations.

Following a 2014 lawsuit, the University shifted its Title IX processes from a subcommittee of the Faculty-Student Committee on Discipline to a panel of investigators that collected evidence and conducted interviews.

But in 2019, student protests erupted on campus over complaints about the handling of cases. One of the leaders of Princeton Students for Title IX Reform (PIXR), Aisha Tahir ’21, recalled in an interview that the protests stemmed from the feeling that “the people within the Title IX office had no experience of handling gendered violence or trauma.”

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education under the Trump administration was drafting new federal regulations regarding Title IX formal procedures, which they released in May 2020. Among the more significant changes, the regulations required that all cases have a live hearing. Decision-makers could not rely on the testimony of any party or witness who did not submit to cross-examination at the hearing, meaning that survivors would have to make themselves available for questioning by the representative of their alleged assailant. A federal court later set aside the cross-examination provision, though several Title IX experts said it remains the norm for parties and witnesses to be cross-examined.

“The Trump administration had very heavy focus on due process and the rights of the respondent, the individual accused of alleged policy violations,” said Mikiba Morehead, a consultant at TNG, an education risk management firm that assesses schools for Title IX compliance, in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “The 2020 regulations became much more prescriptive in how institutions needed to respond to allegations of sexual harassment.”

To comply with the new regulations, the University had to change its policies by August 2020.

***

With new regulations looming, early in the summer of 2020, one University administrator raised concerns that the proposed new procedures could lead to increased underreporting of sexual misconduct.

“In general, we think they’re going to have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to go through the process,” Minter said during an Undergraduate Student Government (USG) meeting in June 2020.

Underreporting of sexual misconduct was no idle fear. In an anonymous We Speak survey conducted at Princeton in the spring of 2017, 81 students indicated that they had experienced non-consensual sexual penetration during the past school year. Yet that same year, the University concluded just 15 cases involving students alleging violations of Title IX, including, but not limited to, penetrative sexual assault. While in many cases, students were found responsible for some violations, accused students were found responsible for non-consensual sexual penetration in only two cases.

In August 2020, Princeton updated its Title IX policies to comply with federal regulations, implementing a live hearing both for Title IX cases and for an expanded set of violations covered under the University Sexual Misconduct policy. 

Speaking about changes to university policies across the nation in the aftermath of the Trump-era regulations, Morehead said, “The process now more closely mimics our judicial system.”

She emphasized that the new regulations had resulted in elongated timelines for formal proceedings, which can commonly stretch multiple semesters.

In policies released concurrently with the changes to Title IX processes on campus, the University created a shorter, more informal route: the alternate resolution process.

The previous year, protestors from PIXR had included in their demands “an opt-in restorative justice track for survivors who wish to avoid the process of Title IX proceedings.”

Alternate resolution did serve as an opt-in path to avoid the formal Title IX proceedings and bore several similarities to what the protestors had called for. However, a University website notes that it is “not a restorative justice process.” As the website explains: “Restorative justice processes typically require the respondent to acknowledge and accept responsibility for an offense; the alternate resolution process does not require respondents to do so.”

Hannah Reynolds ’22, who advocates for Title IX reform on campus, said that the alternate resolution process was insufficient “because it puts survivors and perpetrators on equal footing in a way that can be harmful.”

Following the formal process

In January 2022, Beth submitted a formal complaint, intending to follow the Title IX process to a hearing. For her, the decision came down to the fact that the alternate resolution process could not result in disciplinary action.

“It felt like whatever I could ask for in the alternate resolution process would not be enough for me to have justice,” she said.

The Title IX coordinator determined that, if proven, Beth’s alleged assault would constitute a violation of University policy. A notice of Beth’s allegations was sent to the student she accused, and the University opened a formal investigation.

A panel of University employees with the University’s Investigations Unit began the process of collecting evidence, interviewing parties and witnesses, and compiling everything into a case file that would be given to the decision-makers before the hearing.

Both Beth and the accused student needed to choose an adviser, who does not need to be affiliated with the University and can be an attorney. The adviser would cross-examine witnesses at the hearing and could also provide emotional or legal support through the investigation process. If either party doesn’t choose one, the University is still required to provide them with an adviser to represent them at the hearing.

Since the 2020 changes took effect, the University has provided financial assistance for an adviser through the University External Adviser Program, with these advisers receiving $10,000 for cases that reach a hearing.

Beth chose an out-of-state attorney who prepared her for interviews and other aspects of the multi-month investigation along with representing Beth at the hearing. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” Beth said. 

***

Before the 2020 changes, the University did not provide financial assistance for students to hire advisers, posing a major financial hurdle for students to hire an attorney. Molly, a graduate student who filed a formal complaint against two fellow students in the spring of 2019 before the changes were implemented, said her adviser was only there for emotional support and “didn’t offer any advice on how to navigate the process.”

Molly had been hesitant about going through an investigation since she had her general examinations to enter PhD candidacy coming up, but decided to anyway.

“I really trusted the institution and its power to protect me, which is why I chose to file that complaint. It entirely failed me,” she said.

Even before the addition of live hearings, Title IX investigations could drag on for months. Molly’s case took almost half a year. She recalled being unable to concentrate on her work and research, and said she had to ask her advisers for time off and reschedule her general exams several times. In the end, only one of the accused was found responsible.

After enduring the whole process, Molly said she felt “betrayed by the University.” Eventually, she left Princeton. “It became unbearable for me,” she said. She plans at some point to return to complete her PhD defense.

The University declined to comment on Molly’s case specifically. University spokesperson Mike Hotchkiss wrote that “the University cannot comment on specific matters.” Hotchkiss noted that students “are provided with detailed information regarding the process at the outset through email communications and an initial meeting with the Director of Gender Equity and Title IX Administration.”

“[Those administrators] are always available to answer questions from parties and their advisers regarding the process,” he added.

***

Between January and April 2022, investigators interviewed Beth three times and asked her to submit evidence ranging from medical examination records to text messages.

The interviews were “inherently intrusive,” according to Beth. 

“The investigators were just doing their job[s],” she said, but she found the questions difficult and personal. They included descriptions of pain during the assault and health symptoms after. During one interview, when investigators asked her for details about her personal medical history, her adviser intervened.

The University says it recognizes the difficulty of the experience for complainants. Hotchkiss noted that investigators are trained in trauma-informed questioning, that parties can request a break at any time for any reason, and that interviews begin with investigators acknowledging that there may be difficult questions and attempting to make students more comfortable.

In addition to Beth and the accused student, the investigative panel interviewed over 20 witnesses, some of them twice, via Zoom over several months.

Investigators compiled evidence and interview transcripts into “case files,” which they sent to both parties. In all, Beth received and responded to three different versions of the case file, and the final case file was presented to the hearing panel before the trial.

“I didn’t know going in that I’d have case files I’d have to respond to,” she said. “It felt like a training in law school.”

According to Beth, aspects of her digital footprint from high school were initially included in the file.

“It felt like my whole digital track and my whole character was called into question,” she said. “I did not know that going in.”

The University declined to comment on Beth’s assertions about the kind of information included in her case file.

Three months after Beth’s first interview, she received an email from the University’s Title IX administrator stating that the process would take longer than the allotted 90 days since the first interview that the University aims for.

After both parties received the final case file, they had two weeks to submit a list of witnesses they wanted to call to the hearing, with proposed topics for examination.

The hearing was scheduled for mid-summer.

Being called as a witness

Caroline, a close friend of Beth’s, was one of the witnesses Beth called to the Title IX hearing. Prior to the hearing, investigators interviewed her twice about what happened on the night of the alleged incident, as well as Beth’s emotional state in the weeks after the incident. They asked her to submit evidence ranging from text messages to confirmation that a specific phone call occurred.

“It was so difficult seeing my best friend go through this,” Caroline recalled in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ 

In addition, Caroline said that she herself had recently experienced sexual assault at the time she was being interviewed. “It was triggering to go through the interviews,” she said.

The first interview lasted over an hour. Caroline said she felt a lot of pressure from the investigators, especially when she struggled to answer their questions or remember specific details.

“I felt like they were pushing me to remember things I couldn’t and questioning my answers,” she said. “Sometimes I wanted to tell someone that I’m not sure I can talk about this right now, but I felt like I had to answer all of their questions.”

“Understanding that the investigation process is emotionally stressful, all parties are provided with information about mental health resources throughout the process,” Hotchkiss, the University spokesperson, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ 

The hearing presented new challenges for Caroline. Both the panel members and the accused student’s adviser questioned her. The cross-examination, she said, was the hardest part. “It felt like his lawyer was trying to catch me in a mistake,” she said.

Caroline feels that there were things Princeton could have done differently. For example, she wishes there had been some warning in the initial email calling her as a witness that the process could be upsetting.

“The University needs to pay attention to witnesses in case they have had traumatic experiences too,” she said. “I lost a lot of trust in the University because of this process.”

***

Two students who went through the formal Title IX complaint process cited friends being called in as witnesses as one of the more difficult parts of the experience for them.

“I wasn’t supposed to share any details with what was happening, because I would be corrupting their abilities as a witness,” Beth said. “I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it without hurting my own case.”

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Hotchkiss wrote that each party receives an email from the Office of Gender Equity and Title IX Administration at the beginning of the formal process that encourages students “to exercise discretion in sharing information in order to safeguard the integrity of the process and to avoid the appearance of retaliation.” But the email also states that students “are not restricted from discussing the allegations under investigation.”

Vanessa is a graduate student who began a Title IX case but eventually switched to the alternate resolution process. She said that the investigators interviewed all of the people she had told about the incident, around a dozen friends.

“In the end, almost everyone that I asked for emotional help in dealing with my trauma ended up testifying as a witness,” she wrote in an anonymous op-ed in the ‘Prince’ in November. “With seemingly everyone I knew being called to give testimony, I felt increasingly alone.”

The hearing

In July, Beth logged onto a Zoom call. It was her case hearing, during which she would be questioned by a former judge who would ultimately determine whether or not her allegations were true.

For two long days, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m, Beth sat on the call as the panel and advisers questioned her and 16 witnesses. For the most part, her video remained off.

A hearing panel oversaw the proceedings. Panels are composed of two University administrators who assist with deliberations and a Presiding Hearing Panelist, usually a former judge or attorney. The Presiding Hearing Panelist ultimately determines whether or not the respondent is responsible for violating University policy. 

The panel was familiar with the case, having reviewed the case file compiled by investigators, though Beth said she was questioned over things she had already answered. 

“It was like, really, I have to explain this once more?” she said.

The cross-examination, carried out by the accused student’s lawyer, was emotionally exhausting for her. “I didn’t know how it would feel to have someone doubting everything you say. You start doubting yourself, gaslighting yourself," Beth said.

Both parties submitted written closing statements a few days after the hearing. They received the written determination of responsibility roughly a month later.

Ultimately, the panel determined the accused student was responsible for sexually assaulting Beth – a violation of Title IX – though he was not found responsible for some of the other allegations Beth had made. The University sent the decision to Beth in mid-August, a month after the hearing and seven months after she filed the formal complaint.

Both parties appealed the outcome, but in a response sent in September, they were informed that neither appeal was successful. The accused student was suspended for two semesters.

Ultimately, the whole process took eight months, longer than Beth had hoped.

Hotchkiss noted that “the University seeks to complete cases as efficiently as possible without compromising fairness” and that “the complexity of the case may affect the amount of time required to conduct a thorough process.”

***

Vanessa pursued the formal process for five months. She, too, found the investigation exhausting.

“After the first interview, my body reacted to the stress. I got sick and lost my voice,” she said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “Leading up to the second, I had panic attacks.”

Ultimately, the prospect of going through with a hearing became too much.

“Soon I learned that the past five months of depression, anxiety, and PTSD were not over. At my hearing, I would be interrogated anew,” she wrote in her op-ed.

With a hearing date set, Vanessa instead opted to pursue alternate resolution.

Avoiding the hearing: alternate resolution process

In the spring of 2021, Jessica was deciding how to pursue her own Title IX case.

As part of training for a campus position, she learned about the various options open to her. Jessica considered the formal process, culminating in a hearing. She said that if the formal process was “less intimidating,” she might have pursued it.

“I thought ‘absolutely not that’ when I heard about the hearing. It wasn’t the path for me,” she said.

Jessica instead pursued the alternate resolution process.

Alternate resolution terms can include one party being banned from specific campus organizations, changes in either party’s housing, and required participation in the Community Integrity Program (CIP), a behavioral intervention training. The process can also result in No Contact or No Communication Orders, including a skewed No Contact Order that places the burden of limiting physical proximity on one party — for example, if the victim arrives at a party where the perpetrator is present, the perpetrator must leave.

At any point until an agreement is reached and signed by both parties, either has the right to switch to the formal grievance process.

Jessica wasn’t necessarily looking for disciplinary action or for anything to be placed on the respondent’s permanent record. Getting him to agree to participate in the Community Integrity Program (CIP), “an intervention process designed to address the nature of the problematic behavior by targeting attitudes and behaviors that contribute to sexual harm,” was more appealing to her.

“It seemed like a more productive form of healing for me,” she said. “I just wanted to educate him on consent, and for him to stay away from me.”

She met with a SHARE counselor and the University’s Title IX Coordinator, both of whom provided her with more information about pursuing the alternate resolution process.

The Title IX Coordinator must determine whether the case is appropriate for the alternate resolution process. They may decide that it’s not and that the student must instead pursue a formal Title IX grievance, if anything. The process is not available for cases between University employees and students.

Vanessa, the graduate student, was initially told that her allegations were so severe that she would not be able to pursue it through alternative resolution. Vanessa later appealed that decision on the grounds of her mental health, and the University ultimately allowed her to pursue alternate resolution.

***

In contrast to Vanessa’s case, Jessica’s situation was deemed appropriate for the alternate resolution from the start. She met with the Title IX administrator again a few days later, who told her to document what she wanted to include in the agreement.

Two weeks after submitting her formal complaint, she requested five terms, including a skewed No Contact Order, his participation in the CIP, and for him not to bicker her eating club.

“I wanted to feel safe in my eating club and to eat without looking over my shoulder,” she said.

He objected to three of the five terms, and the two parties proceeded to negotiate indirectly. The Title IX administrator would hear terms from one party, communicate them to the other party, then shuttle messages over and over until both parties agreed. 

***

After about 10 days of negotiation, the agreement was signed electronically by both parties.

The final agreement maintained some of Jessica’s original requests, though not all. In particular, the skewed No Contact Order had been changed to a mutual No Contact Order. A mutual No Contact Order requires that whoever arrives second to a location must leave if the other is already there, rather than putting the responsibility of leaving and limiting physical proximity entirely on the accused student.

He did agree to participate in the CIP. Jessica later wrote a statement to be read to him by a clinician at this program, about what happened and what should have gone differently that night.

The whole process, from the initial filing of a complaint to the signing of the agreement by both parties, took less than a month. Though short compared to the formal grievance process, Jessica says it was still draining.

“I had a lot of anxiety before and during the process, especially when he didn’t agree at first to the terms that mattered the most to me,” she said. “I remember having panic attacks walking through campus.”

Since signing the agreement, Jessica hasn’t been entirely satisfied with the outcome.

Once, Jessica said, when she was sitting at a coffee shop, the other student came in and waited for his drink before moving upstairs. Knowing he was close, Jessica said she couldn’t focus on her work. Later, she asked her SHARE counselor about the situation. Jessica showed the ‘Prince’ an email in which a SHARE counselor told her that in her experience, administrators considered another floor “usually sufficient” for purposes of the No Contact Order.

A No Communication Order FAQ document from the University lists “studying in the same section/floor of the library” and “standing next to the other party in line at a food servery” as behavior that might be considered a violation.

Jessica said that the student she accused of misconduct also appeared at a pre-Bicker event at her eating club, which he had agreed not to attend. A few weeks later, he was on the list for a party at the club.

Although students can appeal to the administrator who issued a No Contact Order to address violations, Jessica decided not to reach out to the Title IX office about the situation. “At this point, I was so exhausted dealing with the Title IX office,” she said. “It’s just so slow.”

Instead, she told the club’s president, and when the student showed up for the party, the bouncers turned him away.

***

Vanessa also found that the process didn’t meet the standards she wanted. When she first attempted alternate resolution, the alleged perpetrator objected to her terms.

“There was no way to push the terms I wanted through,” she said.

She shifted back to the formal grievance process, but found once again that the stress was too high. Turning to the alternate resolution route a second time, the parties eventually reached an agreement.

However, the terms were not what Vanessa had hoped for. 

The agreement included a mutual No Contact Order instead of the skewed No Contact Order she had wanted. And her alleged assailant had refused to split time at the gym, for instance a plan where one student was allowed in the morning and the other was allowed in the afternoon.

As a result, when she spoke to the ‘Prince,’ Vanessa hadn’t been to the gym in months.

“I wouldn’t feel safe there,” she said.

Vanessa feels little emotional resolution. “He took no accountability or responsibility for his actions,” she wrote in her op-ed. 

The future of Title IX at Princeton 

The Biden Administration released proposed changes to current Title IX regulations in June 2022. It is unclear which of the proposals will go into effect, but the new rules are expected to be made public in May. While proposals released by the Department of Education remove the live hearing requirement, schools would still have the option of offering informal resolution processes. If the final regulations match the proposals, Princeton would be allowed to preserve its alternate resolution process, the path that most students currently choose.

***

As one of the few students to go through the formal Title IX process in recent years, Beth acknowledged that many difficult aspects of the process that she went through were out of University control. 

“At the end of the day, this is a federal policy,” she said.

Still, she wishes the process were better. Beth hoped to have more information during the appeals process and about how they chose the out-of-state judge who presided over her trial.

Beth also wishes that there was more awareness among students and faculty about the Title IX process and what people might be going through on campus. She struggled asking teachers for extensions, and most of her friends knew almost nothing about the process, from the lengthy investigation to the hearing. It was difficult for her to explain what she was going through.

Still, she said, pursuing the formal Title IX process was worth the effort.

“I don’t regret going through with it,” she said. “But I just wish I knew how hard it would be.”

Paige Cromley is a head Features editor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.