The big news in campus sexual misconduct hearings is that believers in trauma-informed adjudications are on the defensive. What that verbal mouthful means is that apparent weaknesses in a complainant’s case—inarticulateness, contradictions, lying, or being too “frozen’’ or fearful of testifying—must not be automatically taken as evidence that sexual trauma has occurred.
In recent years, the one-sided nature of “trauma-informed” training has formed a noticeable trend in the flood of lawsuits filed by accused students. In a lawsuit against Penn, the court cited the university’s trauma-informed training as a key reason why the complaint survived a motion to dismiss. During the Brown university bench trial, the decisive vote in the adjudication panel testified that she ignored exculpatory text messages because of the training she had received. Ole Miss’ trauma-informed training suggested that an accuser lying could be seen as a sign of the accused student’s guilt. And at Johnson & Wales, the university was so disinclined to make public the contents of its training that it refused a request by the accused student’s lawyer to see it before the hearing.
Amidst this legal backdrop came Emily Yoffe’s blockbuster article in the Atlantic. Published on September 2017, the piece reviewed the dubious science behind the trauma-informed training used at many schools. Yoffe’s conclusion: “The result is not only a system in which some men are wrongly accused and wrongly punished. It is a system vulnerable to substantial backlash. University professors and administrators should understand this. And they, of all people, should identify and call out junk science.”
A few weeks ago, in a remarkable statement, ATIXA, the Association of Title IX Administrators, an organization that generally defended the Obama administration’s accuser-friendly approach to Title IX adjudications, added to these concerns. In a seven-page statement, the organization acknowledged that “Emily Yoffe did not win many friends for her critical piece on the topic in The Atlantic in 2017, but ATIXA believes her points needed to be made.”
The ATIXA statement expressed support for the principle of investigators understanding trauma but worried that a one-sided approach permeates too many campus adjudications: “To assert that trauma cannot be faked is as flagrantly false a claim as asserting that trauma is proof of assault. Individuals can fake sleep disorders, nightmares, heightened arousal, trust issues, triggering, and more.”
The statement expressed hope that one day the science might justify how many schools are currently employing trauma-informed training but noted (correctly) that “the ‘Neurobiology of Trauma’ should not significantly influence the way that colleges and schools evaluate evidence” now. ATIXA particularly singled out the work of Rebecca Campbell, whose research has played a critical role in the trauma-informed Title IX world, and whose dubious claims were a focus of Yoffe’s piece. According to ATIXA, “Yoffe’s critique is correct in this respect; much of what people think they now know about trauma is far more conjectural than empirical.”
In a sad—but likely accurate—reflection on the current state of Title IX adjudications, ATIXA recommended, “The field of those who do Title IX-related work has, to some extent, gotten ahead of the science. A corrective – and collective – step back is needed. Campbell and others are used as training sources and cited as gospel.”
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, ATIXA head Brett Sokolow offered an even more startling illustration of the problems with trauma-informed training:
At one university that Sokolow declined to name, a panel charged with making a decision on a sex assault case did not ask any questions of a survivor because the group had been advised that doing so would “re-traumatize” her. The accused student was found responsible for the assault but was not punished because he appealed, Sokolow said.
Defenders of the Title IX status quo have reacted with fury. A consultant from a group called Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses LLC fumed that the statement “represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what trauma-informed practices actually mean.” (The consultant wasn’t quoted as offering any specific ways in which the ATIXA statement misunderstood how universities have incorrectly employed trauma-informed training.) Accusers’ rights activist Laura Dunn likewise went for a personal attack, charging that the statements “drafting and tone are unprofessional and at times pretentious.” Dunn positioned the one-sided Title IX trauma-informed approach as an antidote to the criminal justice process—a remark that revealed more than perhaps she intended.
Ironically, despite such criticism, the ATIXA statement still made clear the organization’s sympathy for how universities handle Title IX adjudications. Noting the proliferation of lawsuits from accused students, the statement suggested that “wise administrators are vetting their training materials for potential indications of bias to ensure the best possible defense to a claim of a biased resolution process.” That’s interesting language, open to an interpretation that ATIXA urges schools not to put their most legally vulnerable sentiments in writing.