No Evidence of Weaponized Title IX at Institutions of Higher Education

No Evidence of Weaponized Title IX at Institutions of Higher Education

Data from Annual Security Reports and Title IX Coordinators at institutions of higher education in a Mid-Atlantic state showed that sexual misconduct is underreported to the public and rarely results in formal Title IX complaints. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2019, Vol. 43, No. 2, 180-192

No Evidence of “Weaponized Title IX” Here: An Empirical Assessment of Sexual Misconduct Reporting, Case Processing, and Outcomes


Tara N. Richards, University of Baltimore


Little is known about actual incidents of gender-based violence reported by college students or the campus adjudication process or outcomes of reported cases. Data from Annual Security Reports (ASRs) and Title IX Coordinators was used to examine the context, processes, and outcomes of reported incidents of sexual misconduct (N = 1,054) at institutions of higher education (IHEs) in a Mid-Atlantic state. Results showed that ASRs undercounted incidents of sexual misconduct. Few incidents reported to Title IX Coordinators resulted in a formal Title IX complaint, and fewer still resulted in a finding of responsibility or suspension/expulsion of the responsible student. The primary outcome of reports were victim services, not perpetrator punishments. Significant variability within and between IHE types was also uncovered. Findings suggest that better data collection as well as research on victim engagement in the Title IX complaint process and on sexual misconduct at community colleges and independent IHEs is needed.


gender-based violence, Clery Act, Title IX, Annual Security Reports

Summary of the Research

“Decades of victimization surveys have identified that gender-based violence—including rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking—is a significant problem among college students. Estimates suggest that as many as 25% of college women experience a sexual assault during their college career and as many as 32% experience dating violence. Further estimates for other types of sexual misconduct (e.g., attempted or completed unwanted kissing, sexual touching using physical force, threat of physical force, and/or verbal coercion) indicates that as many as 34% of college women experience such behavior” (p. 180).

“Although a large body of research has demonstrated that gender-based violence is a significant issue on college campuses, little research to date has examined actual cases of gender-based violence reported on college campuses or the processing and/or outcomes of these cases. One of the key reasons for these omissions has been deficiencies in available data. The present research aims to overcome this issue by using information from a unique data collection effort on the part of a state Higher Education Commission (hereafter, “the Commission”) in a Mid-Atlantic state. Specifically, publicly available data on incidents of gender-based violence from Annual Security Reports are compared with data from incidents of gender-based violence internally reported to Title IX Coordinators, including Sexual Assault I (e.g., rape), Sexual Assault II (e.g., unwanted sexual touching), and “Other” Sexual Misconduct (e.g., dating violence, stalking). In addition, the context of incidents, case processing, and outcomes of internally reported cases are presented, and this information is compared across public 4-year [institutions of higher education] IHEs, community colleges, and independent IHEs” (183-184).

“Publicly available data from Annual Security Reports and data internally reported to Title IX Coordinators established that the majority of incidents of gender-based violence reported by students at public 4-year IHEs, community colleges, and independent IHEs in the sampled state comprised ‘Other’ Sexual Misconduct (e.g., sexual harassment, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking), compared with Sexual Assault I (e.g., nonconsensual sexual intercourse) or Sexual Assault II (e.g., nonconsensual sexual contact); however, a comparison of these publicly reported and internally reported data sources demonstrated that Annual Security Reports are inadequate data sources regarding the number of incidents of gender-based violence reported on college campuses” (p. 189).

“An examination of the context, processes, and outcomes of incidents of gender-based violence internally reported to Title IX Coordinators revealed that the majority of incidents were reported after 24 hr or more, and more than half of incidents included only student perpetrators and took place on campus or at a school sponsored activity. In addition, more incidents of gender-based violence reported to Title IX Coordinators were reported to law enforcement than were processed through the formal Title IX complaint process. When incidents were formally processed, the majority of accused students were not found responsible for violating the IHE’s code of sexual misconduct, and students received a suspension or expulsion in less than half of cases with a finding of responsibility. A wide range of victim accommodations were associated with incidents reported to Title IX Coordinators, with nearly two thirds of student victims receiving referrals to counseling, nearly one third receiving assistance with a no-contact order, and approximately one in five receiving academic accommodations. Analyses by IHE type suggested that contrary to conventional wisdom and the hypotheses presented here, reports of sexual misconduct, case processing, and victim accommodations were not concentrated at public 4-year IHEs. Instead, findings showed that Title IX Coordinators at community colleges and independent IHEs received a significant portion of the reports of sexual misconduct, and many of these incidents involved student perpetrators and occurred on campus or at a school-sponsored activity. Further, there was significant institutional-level variability in the prevalence and context of reported incidents of sexual misconduct” (p. 189).

“Consistent with the prior limited research, the number of publicly reported incidents of sexual misconduct was lower than internally reported incidents: Annual Security Reports only captured about half of the incidents of Sexual Assault I and II and about one third of the ‘Other’ Sexual Misconduct cases reported to Title IX Coordinators. The sheer number of cases ‘lost’ using only official reporting mechanisms underscores the undercounting of incidents in official statistics. An analogous example could be drawn from comparisons of reports of gender-based violence in the data from the Uniform Crime Report (i.e., law enforcement incident information) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (i.e., reports from victims of crime); the longstanding discrepancies between these two data sets highlight the great informational loss that is attributed to reliance on reports to law enforcement alone to understand gender-based violence. Thus, the findings reported here demonstrate the need for better data collection mechanisms that provide publicly available information on reports of sexual misconduct from victims. State legislators in Louisiana and Virginia, for example, have proposed such measures, but they have yet to pass the full legislative bodies and be signed into law” (p. 189).

“Findings from this study show that the primary outcome of reports of gender-based violence to Title IX Coordinators include accommodations to victims, not punishment to perpetrators: Academic accommodations and victim referrals to services made up the majority of the on-campus response to gender-based violence. Thus, at least in the sampled state, during the 2015 academic year, there does not seem to be evidence of what the Secretary of Education has described as ‘weaponized Title IX’ being used to suspend and expel accused students en masse. The opposite seems to be true: Few students actually used the campus administrative process, and when they did and there was a finding of responsibility, there was little guarantee that the responsible student would be removed from campus. These findings are consistent with the limited existing empirical data showing that suspension and expulsion are not routinely used by IHEs in cases of sexual misconduct” (p. 190).

Translating Research into Practice

“[T]he utility of Annual Security Reports in regard to understanding gender-based violence on college campuses could be improved by expanding the types of offenses for which data on ‘arrests’ and ‘referrals for disciplinary action’ are presented to include sex offenses, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking. Currently, Annual Security Reports present only the number of arrests and referrals for disciplinary action associated with incidents of liquor law violations, drug abuse violations, and illegal weapons possessions. The inclusion of such information for incidents of gender-based violence data would provide an additional avenue for transparency regarding the IHE’s response to gender-based violence as well as an incentive for campus security authorities to take gender-based violence seriously. At the same time, strategies would have to be in place to protect a victim’s choice in regard to any “formal” response (i.e., victims have the right to notify or decline to notify law enforcement and file or decline to file a formal Title IX complaint). To this end, Annual Security Reports could include an additional data field that presents the number of cases in which the victim declined formal intervention (via a formal Title IX complaint or the filing of criminal charges)” (p. 189).

“[T]hese data show that among cases that were reported, most victims did not report immediately, highlighting the need to empower students with information about evidence retention given that many students decided to report in the days or months after their victimization. Prior research from Richards (2016) showed that the majority of IHEs in a nationally representative sample included statements in their sexual assault awareness information about how showering, brushing one’s teeth, and/or changing one’s clothes after a sexual assault could destroy evidence. This information should be widely disseminated to students. It would also be useful for IHEs to expand this information to include instructions on preserving documentation (e.g., saving unwanted text messages, e-mails, voicemails, gifts) in cases of stalking and/or sexual harassment” (p. 190).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The research and advocacy communities have been forced to prove and reprove that the problem of campus sexual misconduct exists. Policymakers, administrators, and individuals who are not yet convinced about the urgency of this problem may never be persuaded. Among those who are, there must be a concerted effort to move the research agenda and associated debate from prevalence to response. More information about the accommodations offered to students, timelines to complaint resolution, outcomes of formal complaints, and outcomes of appeals is needed, and this information must be available at the incident level with accompanying demographic and contextual information. More information about when and how reports to law enforcement take place and the outcomes of those reports is also necessary. To answer these important questions and others, university systems, or better yet, state governments, must have the courage and political will to collect this information and make it available for scientific analysis and public consumption. The sampled state has paved the way in this effort, so the pressure of ‘being first’ has been eliminated. The question now remains, who dares to be last?” (p. 191).

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