Texas A&M announces changes to Title IX policy

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M announced a host of changes to its Title IX policies Monday, changes that are intended to strengthen sanctions on those found responsible for sexual assault and to better serve survivors after a group of current and former female students who reported being sexually assaulted expressed disappointment with the school's handling of their complaints earlier this summer.

The changes, which are the result of months-long internal and external reviews of the school's current policies, include establishment of a minimum one-year suspension for students found responsible for acts of sexual abuse (absent significant mitigating factors), new guidelines to determine when a student may return to extracurricular activities, including athletics, by taking decisions off the hands of the club, organization, coach or team and adding four additional Title IX officers to its current staff.

School president Michael Young announced 11 immediate actions that will be implemented as the result of extensive reviews. He said he feels this builds on a "strong foundation" he believes Texas A&M had in this area and aims to improve the Title IX process moving forward.

"Today is to get it as close as we can to [perfect] and make improvements on a pretty strong foundation that's already in place," Young said. "It was a serious process undertaken by people with compassion and serious intent. ... On the other hand, it's clear that it wasn't an easy process to go through and it also was a process that didn't work all the time and wasn't as supportive as it could be.

"There should be concern about making it better because we do have people for whom it did not work, for whom it was bad, for whom the outcomes weren't good. We recognize that, and that's what we want to address."

The process culminating in Monday's announcement began in June after multiple women took to social media to voice frustration with how Texas A&M handled their sexual assault reports. It also led to the formation of a group called 12th Woman, comprised of sexual assault survivors who are current or former Texas A&M students.

One of the women who was vocal on Twitter this summer was Hannah Shaw, who tweeted about her anger at the school's decision to let Austin Van Overdam back on the swimming and diving team after he had been found responsible for sexual misconduct. He was suspended for one semester as a result of the university's finding.

Van Overdam in June filed a Title IX lawsuit against the university alleging "gender bias" in the school's decision, and he has denied any allegation of sexual assault.

Meghan Romere, one of the organizers of 12th Woman, also was among those who shared her story this summer. Romere, a former A&M student and tutor, reported that during tutoring sessions in 2016, football player Kirk Merritt exposed his genitalia.

Merritt said he was merely trying to scratch himself due to a persistent case of "jock itch," and the school did not find him responsible for sexual exploitation after a student conduct investigation. Merritt was later dismissed from the team, pleaded no contest to two criminal charges of indecent exposure and received two years of deferred adjudication plus 40 hours of community service.

Members of 12th Woman -- which is a nod to the school's "12th Man" tradition -- met with school officials in June and were involved in the review processes that resulted in Monday's actions. Kirsten Covington, a survivor and the group's student liaison, was present at Monday's announcement.

The school said Monday that students found responsible for sexual abuse, in the absence of significant mitigating factors, will serve a minimum one-year suspension. Those allowed to return after a year or more of suspension will not be eligible to represent the university or receive institution-administered scholarships, meaning if an athlete was found responsible for sexual abuse, he or she would not be able to return to their team or regain their scholarship.

The decision whether to allow a student to participate in extracurricular activities, including athletics, will now be assigned to the school's dean of students and not the coach, team or club. That applies both to interim restrictions while a case is pending and actions following a ruling.

"We want to be sure that there is a more neutral examination of that," Young said. "Dean of students, his retention at this university does not necessarily turn on our football win-and-loss record. So trying to create a more objective view of that became important.

"That does not mean that the coach or head of another student organization can't also (determine that the student) violated team rules. It may be that even if it were determined, from a university perspective, that a person may participate, other people in charge of that particular organization may say, no, you violated some rule specific to that organization."

Members of 12th Woman expressed appreciation for being included in the review processes.

"The 12th Woman appreciates Texas A&M for including us in both the internal and external reviews," the organization said in a statement obtained by ESPN. "We were able to take our personal experiences and educate the university on where the discrepancies were case by case, as well as provide insight on how to better serve victims who have experienced the trauma of a sexual assault and how their procedures can provide a better, more seamless experience. We know that this is only the start of change for Texas A&M and we are excited to continue to work with them to change the environment and culture for the better. They can and should always continue to do more as they have abandoned this department for years. Our hope is that other universities see Texas A&M University as a leader and this ignites internal reviews at universities across the country. In addition, we will continue to work with Congress at the national level to implement laws that will raise the standard for all universities in regards to their policies, procedures, and sanctioning for sexual assault cases."

Covington, who expressed frustration with how her complaint was handled by the school, said she needs to see evidence that things have actually changed.

"I'm wary," she said. "I believe PR is a big motivator to all the changes they did make because they didn't do anything until they started experiencing media backlash. If it was really important to them, they would have done something before then.

"I was pleased to see they acknowledged all of our concerns. I think what they have going so far is great. ... I hope they actually do put these [policies] into a real, working scenario, but I think that remains to be seen. I think it would take someone else coming forward after being assaulted and going through an investigation in order to tell us whether or not they're going to enact this."

Texas A&M officials acknowledged issues with how Title IX cases have been handled in the past but were adamant that Monday's actions signify their commitment to make it better.

"I can't understand completely, ever, what [the victims] went through," Texas A&M spokeswoman Amy Smith said. "But I can understand that the proof is in the action. I'll tell you that the action is today."