‘Several cases on our desk were catalysts to release a statement’
An organization that represents Title IX officials has a surprising recommendation for its members: Stop relying on unproven scientific claims.
The Association of Title IX Administrators issued a position statement last month on “Trauma-Informed Training and the Neurobiology of Trauma,” warning that training for the field is going in an “unhealthy direction.”
Many ATIXA members are involved in sexual-misconduct proceedings on college campuses, and their training materials may direct them to show bias in favor of accusers, the statement explains.
It cited a common statement in training at schools across the country:
Trauma leaves tracks on its victims. It is very difficult to fake or “act” the sorts of symptoms [of trauma]. When someone displays these symptoms, this alone is evidence that they have been victimized.
Using such materials in training can endanger the integrity of proceedings, prompting ATIXA’s position statement, the group wrote. “To assert that trauma cannot be faked is as flagrantly false a claim as asserting that trauma is proof of assault.”
Pushing back against trauma-informed training will be an uphill battle. An influential nonprofit that pioneered the training re-released a 2016 bulletin on the neurobiology of trauma in July, prompting a lengthy rebuttal by a due-process group this month.
ATIXA supplies trainings to “thousands of administrators each year” and then watches to see how the training is implemented, President Brett Sokolow told The College Fix in an email last week.
“In this case, our trainings were not producing the desired effect, as other trainings were counter-manding the content we were offering,” the veteran Title IX consultant said. “Several cases on our desk, plus the Syracuse case ruling on the motion to dismiss, were catalysts to release a statement.”
Sokolow was referring to a May court ruling that allowed a Title IX lawsuit against Syracuse University to continue. The Syracuse conduct board received trauma-informed training that led it to see an accuser’s inconsistent and contradictory statements as evidence of a “traumatic event” like she described.
The court said this training, which is mandated by New York law, is plausible evidence of gender bias. The parties settled a week after ATIXA released its statement.
Some are ‘politically motivated to extrapolate well beyond’ the science
Sokolow admitted that “due process was not a top ‘radar screen’” for ATIXA when the organization started in 2011, the same year the Obama administration released its “Dear Colleague” letter on campus sexual-misconduct investigations.
ATIXA believed that due process was important but “we assumed members were getting solid due process training content elsewhere,” he said.
“We were focused on building Title IX know-how because we sensed that was what was lacking in the field, and we only had so much time to cover that content in trainings,” Sokolow said.
The group would remind members to get due process training elsewhere, but decided in 2013 to start providing more of that content in its own trainings. The due process trainings are not popular, Sokolow said, but they are “important” so ATIXA will continue to offer them.
While noting its statement could be “controversial,” ATIXA gives credit to journalist Emily Yoffe for sounding the alarm about trauma-informed training in The Atlantic two years ago.
She said popular theories about the “neurobiology of trauma” were “junk science,” and while ATIXA doesn’t completely agree with Yoffe, “her points needed to be made.”
Practitioners in the Title IX field, including coordinators, investigators, and administrators, have “gotten way ahead of the actual science,” according to the Aug. 16 statement by ATIXA’s board of advisors.
Some have been incorrectly applying the science that is out there, and are “politically motivated to extrapolate well beyond any reasonable empirical conclusions currently supported by the science.”
Don’t put ‘non-empirical, biased training on your resume’
Although ATIXA thinks the research could support trauma-informed theories one day, right now “much of what people think they now know about trauma is far more conjectural than empirical.” People in the field need to “take a collective step back” and not cite some of the training sources as “gospel,” according to the statement.
To avoid bias, the group recommends that administrators get their trainings from a “balanced source” or a program funded by a federal grant. “You need to assess whether you can afford to have a non-empirical, biased training on your resume in this age of litigation,” the statement warns.
Trauma can not be used to replace evidence, ATIXA said, urging members to find “reputable trauma-informed investigation and interviewing practices and techniques.” They need to resist “the temptation to allow evidence to be influenced by conclusions about the neurobiology of trauma that are not empirically-supported.”
Sokolow told The Fix many members are concerned that trauma-informed theories are endangering Title IX investigations “both in their professional practices, and with respect to court challenge.”
Despite “various articles and publications” decrying some aspects of trauma-informed theory, many in the field seem “overly influenced by the trauma-informed freight train,” he said, explaining the “strongly-worded caution” from ATIXA.
ATIXA offers trauma-informed tracks that focus “on both the neurobiology and the trauma-informed interview practice,” but they should “not be taken as evidence in investigations,” according to Sokolow.
“[W]e’re not perfect, but we’ve tried early on to recognize trends and issues in the field as they emerge, and to adjust our current trainings and develop new trainings as the field evolves,” he concluded.
‘The impacts of trauma on memories and recall are widely variable’
When End Violence Against Women International, known for its Start by Believing campaign, re-released its document on neurobiology of trauma and interviewing techniques, a group that promotes due process in criminal justice was ready to take it apart.
The Center for Prosecutor Integrity published a rebuttal written by two behavioral neuroscientists, Sujeeta Bhatt of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and Susan Brandon, formerly of Yale University’s psychology department.
“The impacts of trauma on memories and recall are widely variable,” the rebuttal reads: It is possible for trauma to cause vivid memories, no memories, distorted memories, or incorrect memories.
This counters the claim of trauma-informed advocates that people who are unable to recall events, or who have inconsistencies in their story, should be evidence that the incident occurred, according to the press release by the center.
“We do not assert that a victim should be treated as if he or she is lying,” but rather, the accuser and accused should be approached in “an unbiased manner,” the rebuttal says.
Bhatt and Brandon found that victims of sexual assault “may be traumatized in ways similar to victims of other kinds of potentially traumatic events,” like domestic abuse:
Examination of studies across these domains did not reveal any evidence to support the notion that victims of potentially traumatic events require interview methods that are different from those that have been shown to be most effective for accounts of events that are presumably not traumatic.
The best way to get an accurate account of the event from a person, Bhatt and Brandon write, “is to create a situation where the individual can best tell their own story, in their own words, and at their own pace.”
Brandon, one of the authors of the rebuttal, told The Fix that ATIXA’s position statement was “quite good” and she agrees “with much” of it.
ATIXA’s warning to not substitute the neurobiology of trauma for evidence “was quite apt,” the consultant on investigative interview techniques wrote in an email.
“I would add that we should avoid the use of information on the neurobiology of trauma also to substitute for showing empathy,” Brandon said.
When neurobiology is used to explain inconsistencies and make “victims look more plausible,” she said, it creates another risk of bias: that investigators will expect “victims to exhibit certain symptoms and behaviors.”
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