Burdens of Bureaucracy: Challenges of Reporting Title IX Cases to the OEO

Art by Emmeline Meyers

Peer education initiatives on sexual well-being led by groups like Tufts Green Dot, Tufts Sex Health Reps, and Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention reach far and wide on campus. They engage with the student body in a number of ways, from formal training to the Sex Health Vending Machine on the lower level of the Campus Center.

Junior Elizabeth Cucuzzella, co-coordinator of Green Dot, said, “[Our understanding of] sexual misconduct on our campus is colored by all of these different groups and all of the work that they’re putting in.” 

At the institutional level, sexual misconduct is handled by the Office for Equal Opportunity, “a compliance-focused office at Tufts [whose] jurisdiction lies within specific federal, state and local laws,” according to the OEO’s website. Their capacity to address grievances is informed by a number of federal laws and policies. These include Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, and CLERY, which is included in the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. These laws may be invoked separately within varying contexts, but taken together they overlap to protect individuals from “hate crimes based on sex/gender, sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.” 

Anyone seeking the OEO’s support as a result of experiences with sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking encounters a process informed specifically by national Title IX guidelines. Title IX reads, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Any school that receives federal funding—including Tufts—is required to measure reports of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault according to the standards laid out in Title IX.   

OCR Investigation into Tufts (And a New OEO)

In 2011, President Obama issued the Dear Colleague Letter to “remind schools of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX.” The DCL defined the category of sexual violence as including “rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.” This broadened the scope of allegations to which educational institutions were mandated to respond to and investigate. 

In May 2014, after a student accusation resulted in a long investigation into Tufts’ Title IX policy, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights concluded that the university was in violation of federal Title IX policy. Specifically, the OCR reported, “The University failed to provide a prompt and equitable response to complaints of sexual harassment/violence… and, for the student, this failure allowed for the continuation of a hostile environment that limited and denied her access to the educational opportunities.”  

The conclusion of the OCR’s investigation of Tufts in required the school to “address sexual harassment/violence in a comprehensive manner that… requires clear notice of its commitment and the applicable processes for responding in a prompt and equitable manner…[to] ensure that students are not subjected to a sexually hostile climate.”

In response to the DCL and the OCR investigation, the OEO made significant internal structural changes. Jill Zellmer, the OEO Executive Director and Title IX/504 Coordinator, wrote in a statement to the Tufts Observer that the OEO “was reimagined in 2011…[with] a plethora of changes in its policies, procedures, and staffing…At that time the staff and I implemented university-wide report, investigation and complaint processes and protocols.” These included creating and hiring a confidential coordinator and an education specialist, and improving transparency about the sexual assault procedure.

Zellmer wrote these changes “were prompted, in part, by a desire to respond meaningfully to the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter from the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education.”

Regarding OCR’s investigation, Zellmer also wrote, “[It] involved a 2010 matter that predated the current OEO team and OEO office. The University and OCR resolved the matter almost 10 years ago, in 2014. Since that time, the federal Title IX regulations and thus the OEO policies and processes have changed at least three times.” 

How the OEO Handles Title IX Reporting

Currently, Tufts’ Title IX Policy reads, “Prohibited conduct under this policy includes ‘sexual harassment’ as defined in the Title IX regulations as sexual assault, stalking, dating/domestic violence and/or unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity, including quid pro quo sexual harassment.”

Navigating an investigation as a complainant or a respondent involves a number of steps and multiple third parties. As the Title IX Coordinator, Zellmer is primarily responsible for coordinating investigations related to Title IX and implementing regulations at Tufts. When a case is opened, an OEO investigator—or an OEO-hired investigator—conducts a fact-finding investigation of the alleged conduct. If it’s appropriate to the situation at hand, a Decision-Making Panel of three trained, impartial faculty or staff members will convene. Alternatively, individuals seeking informal support from the OEO can access “an anonymous reporting tool called Ethicspoint [and can commence] Title IX informal resolution processes.”

Zellmer wrote, “Over 85% of students [who come to the OEO with a grievance] engage annually in an informal process option with the OEO and choose not to move forward with a formal investigation.” The OEO offers “informal options/resources and support” for those not looking to endure a formal investigative process. This can include “No Contact orders, housing changes, [and] academic flexibility,” wrote Zellmer. 

Changes to Title IX

Another aspect of the OEO and Title IX’s relationship is the constant fluctuation of federal policy. Most recently, Trump-era alterations narrowed Title IX policy requirements, leading to widespread public criticism about how this makes the process more confusing for survivors. 

The definition of sexual harassment under Title IX—the baseline that determines whether a particular situation may warrant further investigation—has changed alongside shifts in federal leadership. Significant among these changes was the constricting of the definition of sexual misconduct from “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to “unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to a school’s educational program or activity,” according to the Harvard Crimson. Sociologist Nicole Bedera wrote in Time Magazine that these changes have “drastically limited the types of sexual misconduct universities are required to investigate…[as] almost no sexual harassment is considered objectively offensive.” Trump also acted in favor of accused students by mandating that Title IX cases could not be opened if the case of misconduct occurred off-campus and requiring that colleges hold live hearings for each opened case, which can be traumatic for survivors.

Bedera asserted these changes make it “harder than ever for survivors to understand their legal rights [and make] formal investigations more difficult and potentially dangerous for survivors.” These changes in policy mean survivors may censor their behavior in an effort to protect themselves.

Following the implementation of these changes, students nationwide who are trying to navigate next steps are confronted with confusing definitions that seek to quantify the legitimacy of their suffering. This can be significantly discouraging. “I feel like going through the OEO process doesn’t make people feel super empowered,” said senior Rowan Hayden, President of ASAP.

Zellmer acknowledged the limitations of recent changes to Title IX policy and highlighted that the way the OEO adapted to these changes was aimed at being “more inclusive of all sexual misconduct matters,” as opposed to only those strictly cited under federal policy. “Because the new Title IX definitions of sexual harassment and jurisdiction are limiting (i.e. they do not include off campus parties and/or conduct occurring in overseas study abroad programs, for example),” Zellmer wrote, “OEO decided to keep our Sexual Misconduct Policy and process.”

Tufts Students and the OEO

On campus, students face the consequences of these federal policy changes, calling into question the role of the OEO as an institutional support mechanism. 

The OEO’s role is not necessarily to exclusively support those who come seeking to disclose information and make reports. Instead, “the mission of OEO is to respond to complaints of discrimination and harassment and requests for accommodation from students, faculty, staff and community members (including visitors and patients) in order to affirm Tufts’ commitment to equal opportunity for all community members and compliance with federal laws,” Zellmer wrote. 

The fact that the OEO operates on behalf of the university may prevent it from providing the kind of help that students need during the reporting process. Hayden underscored this when describing a core belief in ASAP. “Any form of sexual violence is a way to take power away from someone, and so it’s really important to give that power back to the survivor,” she said. “That can look like letting [the survivor] lead the conversation, doing what they want, which is so hard because obviously, you can’t do that as a full institution.”

In contrast, the OEO’s mission stresses its intent to mitigate factors that would lead to any sort of unequal access to education through the establishment of “uniform and equitable policies, procedures, practices and/or guidelines to support equal opportunity for our community in accordance with federal, state and local agencies,” according to Zellmer. 

These different missions converge once a semester when interested student groups, the OEO, and administrators meet to discuss the campus climate around sexual misconduct in a meeting organized by the Sexual Misconduct Steering Committee, which was started in the fall of 2016 through the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force. Cucuzzella said, “It gives a chance for the administration and people in the OEO to hear from students [about] how the student body’s doing, and also for us as students to hear, what are the current regulations in place? What is the OEO doing to make the process more efficient for reporting?” 

The difference in missions between the OEO and student groups can be confusing, especially since seeking support for sexual harassment or assault is nerve-wracking in any context—not to mention that among much of the student body, the OEO already has an unfavorable reputation. “The people we talk to who have experience reporting, it’s always bad,” Hayden said. 

For some students, this is compounded by preexisting negative encounters with the OEO regarding racial and ethnic discrimination. This fraught relationship between students of color and the OEO may be an additional barrier for students hoping to seek support from the OEO on Title IX cases.

Students are often hesitant to report directly to the OEO, but there are systems outside the OEO in place that are able to offer support. The Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education exists to support students in any way that might relate to “sexual health, safe sex, hook ups, relationships, and sexual misconduct,” according to CARE’s website. Alexandra Donovan, CARE Director, and Emma Cohen, Associate Prevention and Response Specialist, are both confidential resources, meaning they’re not obligated to report disclosures to the OEO. 

Because the OEO’s reporting process has so many moving parts, CARE is able to offer support to students who are interested in or are currently going through the experience of reporting to the OEO. According to Donovan, one way that CARE is able to do this is through “explaining what’s going to happen next [in the OEO reporting process] and letting [students] know that they’re not alone in this. I’m with you on this journey. We’re going to figure this out as we go forward.”

Should a student be interested, a member of the CARE office is available to go through the process of reporting to the OEO alongside the student, including being “the bridge between OEO and the student.” Donovan said, “If they want me to receive the emails from OEO and then I meet with the student once a week…[and] talk about what OEO is trying to communicate with them. Because I know a lot of people don’t want an email randomly when they’re not expecting it. That can be jarring.”

Another resource is ASAP, which is a survivor-led student organization that seeks to end sexual violence and support survivors. One branch of ASAP is Survivor Space, which Hayden said is hosted every other week as a “space where survivors on campus can come…[to] craft, carve pumpkins, eat food, do a random activity that has nothing to do with unpacking your trauma… It’s just to have a space and a community. And that’s entirely student [run] and an anonymous space.”

The OEO and Neutrality 

In navigating these spaces at Tufts, many students seek out alternatives to the OEO because they feel the OEO’s neutral and bureaucratic approach to sexual misconduct can be dismissive, as illustrated by an incident that occurred in the fall of 2022. 

Last fall, ASAP coordinated an event called Take Back the Night to highlight resources and show support for survivors on campus. Groups including Sex Health Reps, CARE, and the University Chaplaincy were invited to participate. The OEO was also invited but declined the offer. Recalling the interaction, Hayden said, “The general gist that I got out of the conversation was that they will not come to the event because they have many people with open cases who are survivors or who are perpetrators, and they didn’t want to look biased towards survivors.” Hayden described this response as feeling “very tone deaf.”

Zellmer wrote, “OEO has not been involved in any Take Back the Night events, including ASAP’s, for over a decade. The reason is that, over time, survivors have asked the OEO not to be present at these events because OEO employees often are a reminder of a victim/survivor/complainant’s worst social experiences at Tufts. Out of respect for survivors, OEO staff do not attend these events.” 

This situation illustrates some of the tensions that exist between the OEO and student groups focused on survivor-centric approaches to sexual misconduct, as there are mixed interpretations of the best approach. 

Although students experience roadblocks specific to the Tufts OEO, the difficulty of reporting Title IX cases on college campuses is a federal issue. If students hope to climb the bureaucratic mountain that is the implementation of Title IX across college campuses, advocacy must happen on a federal level. As Hayden described, students want a “survivor-centric approach to the way that Title IX is handled” in order to honor those choosing to come forward.