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UNL takes step to address campus sexual assault; critics say it falls short

UNL takes step to address campus sexual assault; critics say it falls short

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Months after students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln started a campaign to reform how sexual violence reports are handled on campus, UNL said it will form a committee to review its policies and procedures for investigating sexual misconduct.

Members of Dear UNL, which includes students, faculty and staff members who say the university's Title IX office addressed their complaints of sexual assault or harassment with indifference, say the formation of a committee is a good first step.

'What has to happen to me for you to take me seriously?': UNL group pushing for change to Title IX office

But, several members added, the announcement of what UNL is calling the Title IX Collaborative Working Group falls short of addressing the list of recommendations they presented to university leaders in June.

The new working group, which will include members from 25 different campus organizations, including the UNL Faculty Senate, Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, the University Health Center and campus Greek life organizations, among others, is modeled after similar initiatives at Big Ten Conference schools, including Indiana, Rutgers, Illinois, Maryland and Purdue.

"It's important that we work together campuswide to address issues relating to sexual misconduct," said Tami Strickman, UNL's Title IX coordinator responsible for overseeing how the university responds to instances of gender and sexual discrimination prohibited by federal law.

"Through this collaborative effort, we will gather information and identify strategies as we work to strengthen our response to sexual misconduct," Strickman added in a news release.

The group has been in the works since 2018, when the university ended its relationship with Voices of Hope, a Lincoln-based advocacy center for victims of sexual assault, in lieu of launching its own victim's advocacy office, administrators said.

Once it convenes this fall — UNL said the work will begin as soon as members are selected — the collaborative will study UNL's policies and procedures for handling reports of sexual misconduct, identify best practices for prevention, awareness and education to curb sexual, dating or domestic violence before it happens, create new training programs, promote information-sharing among university and community groups and law enforcement, and evaluate the impact of services provided to survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

It will serve in an advisory role to Chancellor Ronnie Green, who said the working group will make UNL safer for all students, faculty and staff.

"Over the past several months, I have listened carefully to survivors of sexual assault and harassment who have courageously come together through their personal experiences to call for elevated university attention to prevention, advocacy and support," Green said.

In a brief interview Tuesday, however, Green said the creation of the new committee was not a reaction to the concerns brought forth by Dear UNL.

"I wouldn't say this is a reaction to the Dear UNL group," Green said, "but as part of the process we were doing anyway."

Members of Dear UNL, which coalesced in March as several students, faculty and staff on campus realized they shared what they have described as traumatizing experiences when going through UNL's Title IX office, said they weren't asked to weigh in on the development of the working group.

Nor have members been asked directly to serve on the committee, said Miranda Melson, a 2018 UNL graduate who now works as a research associate on campus.

Ten members of Dear UNL met with Green on Tuesday afternoon to learn about the collaborative before it was announced Wednesday morning, Melson added. It was their first meeting with the chancellor since they met with him in June to discuss their ideas for reforming the Title IX office.

Melson said the group had thought the invitation was to further discuss the recommendations, but said administrators focused Tuesday's meeting on the collaborative, leaving the group with the sense its ideas were no longer being considered.

Instead, they were presented with the proposed collaborative committee that Kamryn Sannicks, a senior political science major, said does not appear to have any power to make any changes on campus.

"It was explained to me as a group who gets together and discusses what's going on on campus," Sannicks said.

While Dear UNL members feel efforts to improve education and awareness as a way to prevent sexual misconduct from happening on campus are worthwhile, Sannicks said the working group's mission "does not get at the true problem" of how the Title IX office conducts its investigations.

Said Melson: "The problem wasn't finding services on campus. The problem is that there isn't a check on the Title IX office."

Members of the group have accused UNL's Title IX office of violating its own policies and procedures during investigations, as well as conducting investigations without transparency or accountability.

"There is no mechanism to fix that or enhance that, which is what we were truly asking for," Sannicks said. "So this answers a small part of the demands, but it does not get at the overall problem."

UNL said through a spokeswoman the working group will have the purview to review Title IX policies and procedures and recommend changes to Green. The chancellor will have final authority to make any changes, however.

Sannicks said Dear UNL plans to keep working to ensure the voices of survivors of sexual misconduct are heard by the working group by engaging with campus organizations as the committee membership is set.

She said UNL's administrators shouldn't "hide behind the collaborative," and she urged them to continue meeting with Dear UNL's growing membership.

"I hope this new collaborative and the UNL administration will stop seeing Dear UNL's efforts as negative," she said, "and that they would show a willingness to work with us and the experience we've had."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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