University adds new protections to non-discrimination policy

By Fleming Smith

Executive Editor

On August 4, the University approved an updated version of the non-discrimination policy that now includes protections for gender identity as well as pregnancy and childbirth. The revised policy also attempts to present the complaint process for harassment and discrimination in a less legalistic and more approachable way, adding steps that an individual can take on his or her own against discrimination.

The Sewanee Purple covered the previous lack of protections for gender identity last semester in the article “Sewanee’s protections for transgender students lack clarity.” Provost Nancy Berner, a key figure in the revision process of the policy, noted her conversation with The Purple as an instrumental reason in adding gender identity to the policy explicitly.

“I really appreciated that conversation,” said Berner. Previously, she had interpreted the three protections for sex, sexual orientation, and genetic information as implicitly protecting transgender students. “You challenged me to think about that. To think about how I’m interpreting it that way, but can I be sure that everyone’s interpreting it that way. You were right; if that’s what we mean, then we should just put it in there.”

Pregnant students are already legally protected by Title IX, but Berner had concerns that the possibility of discrimination against such students might not be clear to everyone reading the policy.

“If we have a pregnant student, we need to be sure that everyone understands that if we have a pregnant student on campus, that that student has certain rights. It’s not the case that everyone might handle that the way they were supposed to,” said Berner.

Berner stressed that no such incidents of discrimination have yet occurred at Sewanee. However, she added that comments such as “Why don’t you take some time off? Why don’t you take this class after you’ve had your baby?” are discriminatory, though perhaps not in a way obvious to every individual on campus.

While the complaint process itself has not changed over the summer, the new non-discrimination policy seeks to outline the process with friendlier language in hopes of being more approachable.

“It’s a little less legalistic, so it’s less intimidating, we think, more easily understood. And all of those things should make it a sort of friendlier policy,” Berner commented. “It’s much more accessible, I think, than the previous version.”

The document also includes a new section entitled “Steps You Can Take on Your Own” against harassment, such as speaking up to the person or sending him or her a letter. “You should say something, if you’re comfortable doing it, early on,” Berner explained.

Berner, who formerly served as the University’s Title IX Coordinator, also discussed with The Purple recent comments made by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on the handling of sexual assault in schools. DeVos plans to roll back Obama-era protections under Title IX and to revamp the process, which has concerned several women’s rights groups.

In cases of sexual misconduct cases, the University follows the “Dear Colleague” letter, which stipulates that cases are decided on the preponderance of the evidence, the lowest standard of proof that requires the misconduct to have been “more likely than not.” The next highest standard would be clear and convincing evidence, while a court of law uses the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I don’t foresee that if the Dear Colleague letter is moved back, then that would necessitate big changes in our policy,” Berner said. “If we were told to do something else legally, then there would be no choice. And I think that would push everything back in the closet, where it does not belong.”

The University’s non-discrimination policy can be found on the Provost’s Office webpage under General Policies and Procedures.