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Title IX's Sexual Harassment Guidelines & Beckett Brennan's 60 Minutes Story

For the full video, click here.

An April 17 CBS News 60 Minutes story (above) described the case of former University of the Pacific women's basketball player Beckett Brennan, who was sexually assaulted in 2008 and eventually stopped playing basketball as a result.

It's a complex case with plenty of issues to discuss in depth and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) has an outstanding follow-up interview with Joelle Gomez, Executive Director from the Women’s Center of San Joaquin County. However, one of the things not mentioned in the CALCASA piece or in detail by 60 Minutes is how exactly Brennan's case relates to the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights new guidance document to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, which is part of the federal effort to address this problem that Couric alludes to.

The DOE's new document was released about two weeks prior to the airing of the 60 Minutes piece and merely clarifies the pre-existing requirements that Title IX set forth. That was presumably the "Title IX Requirements Related to Sexual Harassment/Violence" document that UOP distributed at a panel event with university leaders on the night after the 60 Minutes broadcast, according to The Pacifican.

The Title IX blog recently laid out the major points of the document in addition to examples of appropriate and inappropriate institutional responses to sexual harassment. What's most relevant to Brennan's case is that Title IX lays out the procedures that institutions are supposed to follow when presented with a sexual harassment grievance. Yet of particular interest in light of Brennan's case is the following excerpt:

Title IX Blog: OCR "Dear Colleague" Letter Addresses Sexual Harassment in Schools
The guidance reminds schools that pending outcome of criminal or university investigation, they should take immediate steps to protect the complaining student, such as changing students' living arrangements and schedules, while minimize the burden on the complaining student, and providing the complaining student with access to counseling and support.

Among the most troubling parts of the 60 Minutes story is how it concluded: the perpetrators who were found guilty by UOP's judicial review board were essentially allowed to continue their lives as usual after short breaks from basketball while Brennan had her "life shattered", as described by Gomez in her interview with CALCASA. For all that the NCAA cracks down on in the name of their nebulous principle of amateurism, the outcome of this case is unsettling to say the very least.

Yet a large part of what shattered Brennan's life occurred after the discipline was meted out to the guilty parties.

"I wanted my life back," Brennan said in the 60 Minutes interview when asked about what it was like to return to UOP in the summer of 2008. "I wanted to play basketball again. I wanted my friends...It was kinda one of those situations where you felt like everyone on campus knew."

Regardless of whether we agree with the judicial review board's final decision, what deserves equal attention in Brennan's story given what Title IX outlines is that despite the university's effort to follow procedure, there was nothing in place to "minimize the burden" on Brennan's life after the case was "over" - ironically, she continues to suffer the consequences for the event while the perpetrators themselves have been able to move on. The ongoing stigma of being "the accuser" and being blamed by her peers for new restrictions imposed by the athletic director for her safety only compounded the trauma of the entire event in leading her to abandon the thing she loved and worked so hard to attain: her basketball career.

Brennan's case serves to reinforce both the importance of Title IX in supporting gender equity on college campuses beyond sports participation and the practical limitations of legislation in correcting for well-entrenched social inequities that institutions didn't create. There is no way to legislate that predominately 18-22 year old peers won't ostracize someone who experienced sexual assault. Yet rather than a reason to further critique the legislation, it's a reason for increased vigilance from those who advocate for gender equity: as Gomez said at the end of her interview, that's why it's so important that Brennan both came forward to report the case in the first place, has remained persistent, and was willing to have her story aired nationwide on 60 Minutes.

The saddest statement that I've heard her say is that, 'If I knew what I know now I probably would never have gone through that process'. To me, that's a stinging statement for all of us in the rape crisis movement to understand - we still have a long ways to go. Yet again, another victim has been let down by the system but we're a part of that system.

And so I think that gives me the motivation and the inspiration to say she may not see the justice at the end of the day in her case but my hope is by her participation as well in the 60 Minutes segment, she will give voice and I think she will give inspiration to so many more who are silent. We all know that stat - that one in five college women will experience a sexual assault before they graduate and over 95% of them will not report. We need to do our work even better and even more focused in making sure that our victims' voices are heard.

Beyond universities and rape crisis counselors, everybody from fellow students to coaches are part of the broader social system that need to work hard to prevent cases like Brennan's from happening on college campuses and respond in a way that is supportive and not further dehumanizing.

Related Links:

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Title IX guidance document (April 4, 2011)

Title IX Blog: OCR "Dear Colleague" Letter Addresses Sexual Harassment in Schools

Pacific Facts: Jane Doe Sexual Assault - University of the Pacific

60 Minutes - Sunday, Apr 17, 2011 (transcript)

Advocates’ duty to partner with universities - CALCASA - California Coalition Against Sexual Assault

The University’s Response to 60 Minutes - The Pacifican

Gomez Video Interview: Women's center collaborates with university to improve resonse to campus rapes