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CHICAGO — Citing a sense of “urgency,” University of Illinois trustees Thursday approved new system-wide recommendations to combat sexual misconduct on its three campuses, echoing those developed recently at the Urbana campus.

They include restricting faculty-student relationships, requiring background checks for sexual misconduct in hiring, and banning separation agreements that withhold any sexual-misconduct findings about departing employees.

Meanwhile, First Amendment groups continued to press the university to reverse a decision forcing WUIS public radio journalists to disclose any sexual-misconduct complaints they uncover to the UI, including the name of the victim, under its Title IX mandated-reporting policy.

“The university should not interfere with reporters’ ability to do their jobs independently, thoroughly and ethically,” Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, told trustees.

The UI issued a statement saying it was “committed to working on a solution” that would protect First Amendment rights and student safety but did not indicate the decision would be reversed.

The report from a 16-member task force on sexual misconduct recommended banning faculty relationships with any undergraduates or with graduate students they supervise or in the same academic department. It also said employees who have authority over students in athletics, academics or extracurricular activities cannot have relationships with students.

To prevent potential abusers from joining the UI, the new policy will require all finalists for jobs to allow their current and former employers to release any past findings of sexual misconduct.

Barring nondisclosure agreements will allow the UI to share that information when employees are considered for promotions or new jobs, officials said.

The report calls on the three campuses to adopt policies that allow for progressive discipline, up to and including dismissal.

It also recommends expanded education and training programs that have proven to be effective in preventing sexual misconduct. A system-wide council will coordinate ongoing education, intervention and response efforts.

“There’s no magic bullet,” said Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson, who chaired the task force. “Training and education are continuous. They’re not one-shot deals. They can’t just be online.”

Currently, employees go through online training once a year, as do students, and each campus has additional programs for students, she said, but “I think we can do better.”

It’s important for programs to be rigorously evaluated to see if they’re working, Wilson said.

“We do so many things and then we never measure whether they’re effective,” she said.

Wilson said policies are already being drafted to put some recommendations in place, but others involving education and training will take more time and money.

Board Chairman Don Edwards said the issue is a “clear priority” and called for it to implemented as soon as possible.

'Gag order' charge

Regarding the First Amendment issue, the UI maintains that its Title IX policy requires WUIS radio reporters, like other UI employees, to report information on sexual harassment gathered from confidential sources, within 48 hours.

In public comments Thursday, the ACLU of Illinois, Better Government Association and Illinois NPR strongly urged the board to exempt the journalists from the mandatory reporting requirement. Counselors and pastors are already exempt from the policy.

Title IX prohibits gender discrimination and harassment in education.

The issue arose after NPR Illinois and ProPublica reported in August on several sexual-misconduct cases where professors found to have violated campus policies were allowed to quietly leave for new jobs or continue being paid during or after investigations.

After the stories were published, NPR Illinois and ProPublica published a questionnaire asking victims of sexual harassment at all Illinois universities to share their experiences and offering to protect confidentiality.

ProPublica, which is not affiliated with the university, later set up a separate reporting mechanism for confidential sources to get around the UI’s requirement.

David Greising, president of the Better Government Association, said the UI’s stance amounts to a “gag order” on journalists and discourages victims from coming forward.

He also said courts have consistently upheld reporters’ First Amendment right to protect confidential sources. He called the policy “counterproductive and legally questionable.”

Allowing harassment victims to trust reporters to protect their identities while bringing their cases to light helps safeguard students and employees on campus, he argued.

The public has a “compelling interest” in continued reporting on the topic, which “cannot be done without the use of confidential sources,” Greising said, adding that the association may go to court to press its case.

'Very important interests'

NPR Illinois Editor Mary Hansen said Title IX experts, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Women’s Law Center, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the UI Springfield campus senate all support the radio station’s position.

Experts have said mandatory reporting under Title IX was created so that students had some assurance their complaints would get to the proper authorities if they confided in someone at the university, Hansen said. It’s “counter-intuitive” to see journalists in the same light, she said.

In its statement, the UI said the Title IX reporting requirements are key to ensuring that the university knows about any student who may have been a victim of sexual harassment so it can provide support.

The UI policy, approved in 2016, exempts only confidential advisers who go through a rigorous training process so they can help survivors of sexual violence, the statement said.

“We realize that having journalists who are also university employees creates a unique situation, and we are committed to working on a solution to support two very important interests. We have no intention of stifling the news gathering process,” it said, noting that the station has already implemented a workaround. “We greatly value and appreciate the essential role of the media and we look forward to working with our WUIS employees on a path forward.”

After the meeting, Killeen said trustees were “digesting” the speakers’ comments but added, “I have no indication that the board is changing its stance.”

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).