College employees and students from around Oregon met up with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, on Friday to talk about changes to Title IX, the federal law concerning sex discrimination in schools, and how the recent Supreme Court decision regarding abortion could affect campuses.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now because of the Supreme Court opinion and laws varying across states, and our colleges and universities and students need clarity,” Bonamici said.
Roughly a dozen people, including university and college Title IX coordinators, joined Bonamici at the roundtable which took place at Portland State University’s downtown campus.
Although the right to reproductive healthcare like abortion is currently protected in Oregon, college officials and students still have concerns regarding the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of Education proposed changes to Title IX, with the goal of strengthening protections for students and defining new protections for LGBTQ students. Bonamici last month led 60 other members of Congress in sending a letter to the education department asking for more clarification on those protections. She hasn’t heard back.
“Title IX has long protected against discrimination and harassment on the basis of pregnancy and related conditions, and related conditions include termination of pregnancy,” Bonamici said. “New regulations clarify that the rules also address recovery time from termination of pregnancy, but you overlay the patchwork of state law regarding abortion rights, and that’s leaving a lot of students in limbo. … There’s just a lot of pending questions right now.”
Bonamici gathered the students and college administrators to discuss some of the questions and concerns they have for their campuses as the start of the school year approaches.
Several talked about concerns regarding student privacy, as the proposed rule changes could make it mandatory for employees to report any instances of sexual misconduct or pregnancy directly to a school’s Title IX department.
“How do we ensure we’re creating protections to make sure we’re also centering students, centering their privacy, their autonomy, and we’re empowering them?” Becky Bangs, Oregon State University’s Director of Investigations and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, said on Friday. “One of the things in the Title IX [proposed changes] made me a little bit concerned about reporting obligations to the Title IX office.”
The right to an abortion in Oregon is protected. But Bangs said she worries for students in other states. She’s concerned records could be used against students if a college is keeping track of who has reported pregnancies.
Others echoed those privacy concerns, stating that mandatory reporting could create a “chilling effect” on students, discouraging them from seeking help and leaving them without the knowledge of available resources.
“Many students talk to faculty in particular with the expectation that faculty will maintain that conversation and keep it private,” University of Oregon’s Associate Vice President, Chief Civil Rights Officer and Title IX Coordinator, Nicole Commissiong said.
Commissiong said under the university’s current policies, faculty members aren’t required to report any instances of sexual misconduct or pregnancy to the Title IX office, and the university wants to keep it that way.
“I do think mandatory reporting would create a lot of barriers for students to access the services that they need,” Commissiong said.
Students agreed that the prospect of mandatory reporting could discourage them from reaching out to college staff.
“I would say definitely talking to friends and fellow students as we start the new semester, the fear of having to report and having to go to an institution and go through the whole process of that — that’s a scary thing for a lot of students, and that would be a big concern,” Olivia Murray Ceriello, a Pacific University student told Bonamici. “At the end of the day, it’s our rights and our needs and our wants and making sure that’s respected and evaluated as we go through that — that’s really helpful.”
Portland State’s Assistant Vice President for Equity and Compliance, Becca Lawrence, said one thing every higher education institution will need is more resources.
Lawrence noted that PSU has a resource center for students with children that assists her office with pregnancy accommodations.
“In order for universities to really provide wraparound services and support students, it does take a little more sort of shifting of resources and priorities to support students in those ways because it’s not as simple as just having a process,” Lawrence said. “And often mandates and edicts from the government aren’t provided with funding.”
Representatives from other universities said resources such as multicultural centers, women’s centers and LGBTQ resource centers can also help provide guidance to students, but not every school in the state has that infrastructure.
“In listening to our big state schools, I find myself… kind of spinning over here. We are not prepared to be able to provide childcare and family care as a small institution of 4,000 students,” Laura Stallings, director of Pacific University’s student counseling center said. “I keep grappling with how important it is to have legislation to be able to motivate institutions to be able to invest in the areas that we need to support our students. It’s like what comes first — the chicken or the egg?”
College administrators said certain types of students may face issues more directly than others. Some examples that came up were students at Oregon Health and Science University studying obstetrics and gynecology who may go on to work in different states, or students at Oregon Institute of Technology doing externships who might go to states with abortion bans.
Bonamici said she’s hopeful the U.S. Department of Education will address some of those concerns when it responds to the letter from her and other members of Congress.
“Everyone who’s living in the United States is going to be affected in some way,” Bonamici said. “The lack of access to adequate reproductive care affects educational opportunities. It affects career outcomes. It affects earning potential, and there are disparate effects on Black, brown and low-income students. That’s pretty clear.”
Bonamici encouraged the roundtable participants to send their concerns directly to the Department of Education, as the department is taking public comment on its proposed changes to Title IX.