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Where We Are Now

News & Features | December 7, 2015

article by Charlotte Hoffman, Maya Pace, Emma Pinsky, and Claire Selvin

The news came out just before finals week of Spring 2014: Tufts was violating Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in the allocation of federal funds. The national Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the US Department of Education declared that Tufts had “failed to provide prompt and equitable responses to student complaints of sexual assault and harassment” and had asked the University to sign a Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA) outlining measures that the administration would take to ensure compliance. Then, on April 17, the University publicly stated that they had revoked its signature from the VRA, effectively refusing to acknowledge they were breaching Title IX in any way. Students reacted immediately, protesting Tufts’ response with an occupation of the administrative building, Ballou, and rallies in solidarity with those participating in the sit-in.

To the students on the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force, which had been working with the administration for the past several months to improve Tufts’ treatment of sexual assault, this revocation came as a complete surprise. Emily Schacter, a senior and a student on the Task Force, said that the University’s denial of misconduct was “kind of a shock.”

One of the consequences of Tufts’ refusal to adhere to the OCR’s demands was the discontinuation of federal funding. With money at stake, the University eventually acknowledged its noncompliance and accepted the VRA.

Since April of 2014, Tufts has been implementing measures to ensure that it is in compliance with Title IX. So where are we now? Has Tufts improved its handling of sexual assault? The signing of the VRA does not signify full compliance with Title IX, only that Tufts has acknowledged its shortcomings and has agreed to take steps towards full compliance. Tufts must continue to take active steps towards preventing sexual assault on campus and supporting student survivors—and we are not there yet.

Almost immediately after signing the VRA, the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO)—the office that deals with sexual misconduct and assault, anti-discrimination laws and practices, and affirmative action—created two new positions: the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Specialist and the Sexual Misconduct Resource Specialist. Alexandra Donovan and Nandi Bynoe were hired to fill these positions (respectively). It is notable that students from Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) and Consent Culture Network (CCN) had written an open letter calling for such a change a year before, but it took a Title IX violation, and the threat of decreased funding before Tufts actually created and hired for these positions. After the threat, the two administrators were hired in the course of a few months.

The new OEO positions seek to provide resources and additional support for survivors. Donovan works with Bynoe and the OEO to coordinate “all student prevention and education programs across the three campuses,” according to the OEO’s website. Bynoe acts as “a first point of contact for students in accessing a variety of resources relevant to sexual misconduct response. This position is necessary to ensure timely access to resources.” In an interview with the Tufts Observer, Donovan said that “having a position devoted solely to prevention allows for greater access and reach within the Tufts community,” and that “[having] confidential [resources] reduces barriers to services and builds trust,” helping ensure that more people receive the help they want.

Tufts Health Services has also taken action to support survivors of sexual assault. Michelle Bowdler, the director of Tufts Health and Wellness Services, feels that her role at Health Services is critical to survivors’ recovery process. She said, “Clinicians may be the first person someone has disclosed an assault to, and how they respond is critical.” In 2014, Bowdler worked closely with student activists on the President’s Task Force for Sexual Misconduct, and has since been part of a working group focused on revisions to Tufts’ sexual misconduct policy. The counselors at Health Services have been educated on “trauma informed therapy,” Bowdler said, and there are resources for students to receive medical exams on campus. In the event that a student opts to have a rape kit done, Health Services offers free transportation to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

One issue raised by the open letter of 2013 was the failure of the university to provide adequate support for survivors, should they choose to report their assault.

And, according to Jill Zellmer, Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO), there are many options. Students can reach out to confidential resources such as Health Services and the Chaplaincy, as well as Bynoe and Donovan. They can pursue “academic accommodations” or request to transfer living spaces; they can also file a formal or an anonymous complaint.

Despite these options that seemingly work toward prevention and support, sophomore Paris Sanders, who is on the E-Board of the Consent Culture Network, said that “the process survivors go through is still abhorrent and needs to be addressed.” She expressed concern over the adjudication process, referencing the possible emotional stress from reading the response statement written by the accused during the process. “It’s not a nurturing process,” Sanders said.

Zellmer acknowledged this, saying that the process can be “emotionally difficult” and that because of this survivors are allowed to bring a “support person” to the meetings. However, these support people cannot be in any way associated with the event or the relationship being investigated. This policy can lead to the exclusion of a complainant’s close circle of friends.

The Task Force has been working to revise policies and the adjudication process to make them more comprehensive and supportive. This comes in the wake of the OCR’s statement that Tufts “disproportionately burdened the student” and “allowed for the continuation of a hostile environment” when responding to a sexual assault accusation. Though the Task Force had been doing work before Spring 2014,

In addition to administrative action, student groups on campus have taken an active role in effecting change on campus. Students involved in Greek life have recently evaluated their role in the problem of sexual assault and how they can contribute to prevention. The Inter-Greek Council has created a group devoted to preventing sexual misconduct within Greek life, and Fraternities on campus have recently created R-MAT, or Risk Management Assessment Team. R-MAT, identifiable at parties by their neon green t-shirts, tries to “proactively assist each [fraternity] chapter in creating an even safer space for its members and guests,” said Rob Jacobson, one of the leaders of the R-MAT initiative.

While Sanders said that she appreciates the heightened scrutiny that fraternities are giving to sexual assault, she said that R-MAT, in particular, may be problematic.

“’Risk management,’ that’s a ridiculous phrase. They’re not going to just stop it; they’re going to ‘manage’ it. Having the language of, ‘we’re going to have frat brothers trained to be strong and protect people’ is kind of heightening the sense of masculinity that furthers rape culture,” she said.

R-MAT was created partially in response to the results of the Tufts Attitudes Towards Sexual Misconduct survey, distributed in spring 2015. Lauren Conoscenti of the Office of Institutional Research and Evaluation was the lead research analyst of the survey.

“More women than men responded to the survey, as they do for most student surveys administered at Tufts. All other demographic variables aligned adequately with the demographics of the university population as a whole. However, to account for nonresponse bias—the possibility that people who did not respond to the survey might have very different attitudes and experiences—data was weighted using a post-stratification procedure, which is a common statistical approach,” she said. This data weighting was made all the more necessary given that less than a third of students responded to the survey at all.

The results were “wholly unacceptable,” according to an email from President Monaco dated September 30, 2015. 24.7 percent of undergraduates reported experiencing either non-consensual intercourse or other non-consensual sexual contact. 83 percent of those who experienced non-consensual sexual intercourse felt that it was partially their own fault.

In addition, over half of the student body remains unaware of Tufts’ sexual assault policies and procedures, and only 7 percent of those who were raped reported to the OEO. This hesitancy to approach Tufts affiliated organizations might stem from the lack of transparency surrounding Tufts’ policies. Although Zellmer directs those who are wondering about the specifics to a document called the Sexual Misconduct Adjudication Process—a step-by-step guide to what happens when someone files a complaint—the actual questions survivors are asked remain a mystery. This concern about transparency is expressed across the board. Donovan said that she and Bynoe are “still working hard to let everyone know [they] exist.” Schacter also said that while transparency has increased in past years, “there’s always more room” for improvement.

The survey results also highlight the continuing need for reform in other aspects of Tufts’ handling of sexual assault. Over 21 percent of those who filed with the OEO did not feel respected, heard, or supported during the process. 66 percent were not satisfied with the outcome of the process.

“Although I haven’t gone through with it, it seems like the process is very much about finding the ‘facts’ and administering punishment, rather than focusing on healing for anyone involved,” said Blaine D., “Thinking about having to ‘prove’ the validity of my experience to a group of strangers made me start to doubt myself, and I didn’t want to go through with a process that would force me to question my own experience. I really wish the process was more focused on restorative justice and more open to the specific needs of each survivor.”

“There’s always work to be done in creating a culture of consent. That’s kind of a nebulous goal,” says senior Bruce Bausk, a Task Force and ASAP member. Bausk emphasizes student activism as having a role both in changing campus culture and Tufts policy. However, the process is often slow. For example, ASAP asked Tufts to show that they did not endorse the nickname “the Rape Steps” for the steps behind Wren. The group specifically requested a visual installment representing the new name “the Rainbow Steps.” The process took two full years, and when the administration finally conceded, they did not inform ASAP. Still, Schacter says, “a lot of the changes that have been made could not …and will not happen without student activism.”

Tufts has clearly made more efforts in the wake of its Title IX violation to address the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Yet the survey results have revealed that Zellmer’s goal, shared by many, of “eliminat[ing] sexual misconduct…on Tufts’ campuses” is still a long ways off. Yet, mere federal compliance should not be the end goal. Tufts should aim to move past regulations with the well-being of students, rather than funding, in mind. Given the survey responses and the voices of survivors, Tufts has failed to remedy the “hostile environment” at the root of the violation.