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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Faculty & Staff

Social Media Spotlight: Twitter outrage prompts A&M Title IX change


Following two viral Twitter threads about Texas A&M University’s handling on sexual misconduct allegations involving student athletes, the university changed its Title IX policy on Aug. 20. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/user: Oldag07

Meghan Romere, a tutor for the athletics department at Texas A&M, helped A&M wide receiver Kirk Merritt with his history coursework. During an Oct. 24, 2016, tutoring appointment, Merritt allegedly exposed his genitals and began masturbating in front of Romere. She reported the incident — the second report involving  Merritt exposing himself to a student tutor that morning — that night.

After consultation with the athletics department, the university suspended Merritt from the football team for two days and mandated no contact between him and Romere.

“I (was) subjected to questioning by a board of supposedly unbiased judges, and required to relive the entire incident again,” Romere wrote in an image attached to the tweet. “Only to be told that even though they believed me, they couldn’t find him guilty because he had ‘jock itch’ and couldn’t control his scratching, causing his penis to fall out of his shorts.”

At the end of the semester, she quit her job. In a June Twitter thread, Romere said the University failed her.

On Aug. 20, according to coverage by KBTX, Texas A&M University at College Station finalized 11 changes to its Title IX policy after Romere and another student addressed their experiences on Twitter.

Policy failures

In their viral June tweets, Romere and fellow A&M student Hannah Shaw, who said she was sexually assaulted by swimmer Austin Van Overdam, said the university handled their sexual misconduct cases with a sense of leniency.

In the tweet, Romere cited A&M’s tendency to prioritize their athletics program as the problem. At the time of Romere’s report and investigation, A&M’s Title IX policy did not bar administration from consulting with the athletics department in determining punishment.

After an appeal for a second hearing, Romere said she and the other tutor who reported sexual misconduct were nearly removed from the investigation.

“We were declassified as victims and were instead ‘witnesses’ which removed us from the proceedings and removed our rights to know whether or not our attacker has been found guilty of his actions,” Romere wrote in the attached image.

‘Rotting from the inside’

Shaw and Romere said on Twitter that they felt deceived by A&M, because the arranged sanctions allowed the student athletes at fault to return to class after their temporary suspensions ended.

“Your precious athletics program means nothing if it represents a university that’s rotting from the inside out,” Romere said in a tweet. “The administration at Texas A&M has a priority problem, and until they realize that the safety and well-being of ordinary students matters just as much as the skills of their athletes, stories like this will become the norm.”

In early June, just four days before Romere’s tweet, Shaw tweeted she was upset that Van Overdam was allowed back on campus along with the university’s swim team. Shaw accompanied her tweet with the conduct letter she received from A&M’s Title IX program.

“I emailed them back saying even though his Title IX case is over it’s still wrong for him to compete,” Shaw said in a tweet.

On June 18, Van Overdam filed a lawsuit against A&M. His attorney, Gaines West, announced that the lawsuit was filed on the grounds to support that Van Overdam was treated unfairly and wrongly disciplined throughout the investigation.

The sanctions for Van Overdam included suspension for one semester, conduct probation effective once he re-enrolled, and a mandatory meeting to discuss consent and sexual health with a member of the Consensual Language, Education, Awareness, and Relationships office, according to a letter sent to Shaw by A&M.

As for Romere, Merritt received just two days of suspension from the football team, and both parties had to sign a no contact order ensuring that they would not be in the same room together.

“If we (the students who reported Merritt) knew that he would be present in an area, it was our responsibility to leave,” Romere wrote in the attached image. “This effectively barred us from any events where the football team would be present.”

A&M’s Title IX office oversaw the Student Affairs Conduct Panel that involved athletics and determined the athletes’ guilt and punishment.

In both of these incidences, Romere and Shaw felt their university failed to inflict the best sanctions, and most of all, they both felt that A&M’s priority with invoking cases of sexual assault was treated as less important than keeping the student athletes in school and within their designated organization.

According to A&M’s updated Sexual Misconduct Policy, some of the changes included hiring more faculty, improving counseling and training, having the Dean of Students playing a more interactive role in various restrictions during investigation, and permanent removal from university extracurricular activities for those found guilty of sexual assault.

A&M also put in place a minimum yearlong suspension for those found guilty of sexual misconduct and made it easier to find the policy online and on campus.

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