Cedarville University’s Biblical Approach to Title IX

By Noah Tang

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Cedarville University observes it as an effort to normalize “consistent respect” for the rights and dignity of others.

Title IX is a landmark statute passed in 1972 that affects every American who is involved in higher education. It has been the law of the land for five decades, benefiting many students over the years even as its role and implementation have evolved. Among these changes have been President Obama’s application of it to issues of sexual violence, as well as President Trump’s changes to it in 2020.

Title IX Coordinator at Cedarville University Shannon Berkheiser explains what the law is about: “At its heart, Title IX is an equity law.” 

Berkheiser added the University is motivated to enforce Title IX for biblical reasons: 

“The main reason we do Title IX at Cedarville University is because we are image-bearers and we are shepherding God’s flock,” Berkheiser said.

Berkheiser’s main responsibilities are making sure that Title IX and related federal laws are adhered to by the University; guiding students or staff through the Title IX process, should they choose to go through it; and training students, staff, and faculty to prevent or respond to sexual violence.

One difficulty to Title IX reporting on campus lies in the historical reluctance of conservative institutions to address such issues for various reasons. Thankfully, this is changing. Other aspects of Cedarville University’s culture lend themselves quite well to enforcing Title IX.

Caroline Sowell, a junior Spanish major, opines that “within the religious community there is a stigma about speaking up against sexual violence. I think [Berkheiser] has done a lot of work in fighting that stigma in her few years in campus, but there’s always progress that can be made.”

Conversely, Berkheiser shares that “we have more people who understand how we should respect the sexual dignity of ourselves and others.”

As a student and former RA, Sowell has had a positive experience: “I truly do not feel abnormally unsafe when walking around. At night, I typically carry pepper spray, but this is not because I feel unsafe on campus; rather it is because I am trying to be a cautious woman in the world. Our Title IX coordinator is a fantastic woman who really cares about the students. I think she has done a lot of good work in making students feel comfortable to speak up if in a dangerous situation.”

Berkheiser clarifies that Title IX was always meant to be for anyone in a dangerous situation, despite the popular thought that it is a “woman’s law.” 

“Title IX is about equitable opportunities and protections for both men and women in every aspect of education,” Berkheiser said. “Historically, women were not given equitable opportunities in athletics and certain male-dominated career fields.”

Over time, Title IX has been applied to more areas relating to higher education such as any discrimination on the basis of gender, dating violence and sexual violence. 

Perhaps the most difficult part of enforcing Title IX is dealing with the changes to the law that occur every few years. 

“The regulations and the guidance tend to change as our administration and our politics change,” Berkheiser said. “Different administrations don’t always provide a balanced response system for universities to use. At times that can be challenging as we seek to provide a University response that is driven by compassion, equity, and fairness.” 

In addition to operating its internal Title IX Office, Cedarville also works with the Family Violence Prevention Center. Celeste Hurley serves there as a Confidential Advocate. She explains that her organization addresses domestic violence, of which sexual violence is a subset. To do so, the FVPC shelters, counsels, and educates clients. It manages their cases and legally advocates for them if need be.

According to Hurley, the FVPC aims “to provide greater connections and support for students. Domestic and sexual violence is a deeply debilitating act. My hope is to help those survivors feel in control of their life and safety through confidential support and helping them decide what happens next.”

Hurley graduated from Cedarville with a degree in social work and is finishing her Master’s in the same. She is also a Licensed Social Worker, and she keeps certain office hours on Cedarville’s campus.

Hurley describes her specific role in the FVPC: “I’m here to listen and help people figure out their next steps, whether that’s meeting with me individually for a little bit, connecting them to my support group, or discussing their options if they choose to speak to Title IX,” she said.

Hurley emphasizes the significance of trauma and the importance of having trained professionals who understand how it affects the brain. She also suggests therapy for those who desire to better understand and deal with their trauma.

“Trauma can make a person feel threatened even when there is not a current danger,” Hurley said. “It doesn’t always make sense, even to the person experiencing it.”

Although Cedarville has done much to address Title IX issues, there is always improvements to be made. It is vital for individuals and the University community to promote a culture of “consistent respect,” as Hurley phrases it.

“What I hear on a regular basis from both survivors and those who perpetrate violence is this question of if the person deserved it or not,” Hurley said. “No one deserves to be hurt. If I make a mistake, I need to own up to it, but I don’t deserve to be mentally, emotionally, or physically devalued because of my mistake.”

“If we increased our understanding of how discrimination and harassment can affect people, we will be much more helpful in our response,” Berkheiser said. “We must use God’s Word as our standard for how we treat others.”

Noah Tang is an M.Div student and a writer for Cedars. He likes drinking coffee, riding his bike, and making terrible dad jokes.

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