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New Title IX coordinator selected amid controversial federal changes

Sharon Stellato is the new Title IX Coordinator at Mercer University. Photo provided by Sharon Stellato.

Sharon Stellato is the new Title IX Coordinator at Mercer University. Photo provided by Sharon Stellato.

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Mercer University selected a new Title IX Coordinator in November to replace Interim Coordinators Doug Pearson and Rhonda Lidstone. Sharon Stellato, former senior investigator at West Virginia University (WVU), plans to bring her experience with innocence claims to the Title IX process at Mercer.

She said she was specifically attracted to Mercer due to its small size and the welcoming environment she said that creates.

“I was looking for a smaller school where I could make connections with students, faculty and staff, so this gave me the opportunity to do that,” she said. “It has that small-town feel.”

Now, she’s interested in helping victims of crimes access the resources they need while they navigate what could be a stressful or even traumatic situation.

“Another thing that interests me, with my background in law, is due process,” she said. “I want to make sure that we’re doing it right, that we’re getting all the information out there, both on the complainant’s side and the respondent’s side, and that we’re treating everyone fairly.”

She decided to pursue Title IX as a career after working with a neutral fact-finding agency that reviewed post-conviction felonies, The North Carolina Inquiry Commission Agency. She was lead investigator in the exonerations of high-profile cases such as Dwayne Dail, who served 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit, and Greg Taylor, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder without evidence.

“It translated because we were looking for the truth, and we didn’t really have an objective in the case other than the truth,” Stellato said.

She then entered higher education by taking her job at WVU, and a few years later decided to relocate back to the South to be closer to her mother in Florida.

Stellato’s appointment comes at a time when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is set to roll out changes to Title IX to combat potential cases of false reports of rape and assault. Critics such as CNN’s Anurima Bhargava said these protections will make it harder for victims to prove they have been assaulted and easier for schools to avoid responsibility.

Schools may not be responsible for responding to incidents of assault or harassment that take place online or at bars, fraternities, off-campus apartments or away games,” according to Bhargava.

The definition of sexual harassment would also change from “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to only “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” behavior, and schools may be required to conduct live hearings and cross-examinations.

Stellato said she couldn’t speak to the impact these new guidelines would have on the culture surrounding Title IX at Mercer, but that the school would ensure that all parties would be treated fairly, in any case, no matter what.

“You always need to follow the guidelines and the law, of course,” she said, “But at the same time, Mercer has a policy in place where whatever happens, we’ll make additions to that and make sure that the process is streamlined.”

Stellato’s office is located in Room 315 on the third floor of Newton Hall, which is next to Willingham Auditorium on the historic quad in the center of campus. She can be contacted at stellato_s@mercer.edu.

“I want (students) to know me and feel comfortable with me, again, no matter what role they’re in,” she said. “That they kind of recognize me as being someone they can talk to.”

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New Title IX coordinator selected amid controversial federal changes