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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Tufts revamps sexual assault policy

Provost David Harris delivers an announcement after the noncompliance protest at the Stand with Survivors at Tufts: Rally for Title IX Compliance on May 1, 2014.

Tufts has over the past several months implemented a number of changes to its sexual assault policy, hired two campus sexual assault specialists and increased mandatory student and faculty training since the Department of Education's (DOE) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found it in violation of Title IX on April 28.

The university previously backed out of a voluntary agreement it had with OCR, but after student protests and additional communication with OCR, Tufts reconfirmed its commitment to the agreement on May 8. The school's compliance with Title IX, the federal law that bans on campus gender discrimination, however, remains in limbo, according to a DOE spokesperson.

This fall, the university's Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force, a group of administrators and students, is scheduled to review the Office of Equal Opportunity's (OEO) Adjudication Policy which consists of the steps university administrators take to determine perpetrator punishments. The same group reviewed and revised the school's sexual misconduct policy during the spring and summer terms according to its 2013-2014 progress report.

Publication of the revised document, which was scheduled to be released at the start of this school year, is contingent upon approval from OCR, according to OEO Director and Title IX Coordinator Jill Zellmer.

The policy changes respond to a more diverse set of experiences with sexual misconduct as well as a new definition of consent based on an "enthusiastic yes," Zellmer said. This new definition was built around student efforts nationwide to create momentum around an affirmative consent of "yes means yes," rather than the original "no means no."

The revised policy also includes a list of the interim housing and academic resources available to those involved in sexual assault cases, as promised by administrators in the joint statement following the May 1 protest.

In the joint statement, administrators also said they would publish "guidelines for disciplinary sanctions" — the standards by which punishments are determined — by the start of this semester. Such information has not yet been made public.

"It seems like this is the kind of thing that Tufts is really good at — not doing this," senior John Kelly, one of the lead organizers of the May protest, said. "This seems like another iteration of the same game that Tufts has been playing."

At the year's first Task Force meeting on Sept. 18, Zellmer said student and administrator attendees will decide who among them will determine setting punishment guidelines. She said administrators over the summer decided to delay the decision until the fall when more students would be on campus.

"Some people aren't going to be happy with that because they think we didn't do it over the summer and we were shirking our duties, but the reality is, I think, this is a better approach because more students will be able to have input then," Zellmer said.

Following the May student protest, Tufts administrators also agreed to hire a sexual misconduct resource specialist in addition to the sexual misconduct prevention specialist position they had already created. Sexual Misconduct Prevention Specialist Alexandra Donovan was hired for the position in July, while the Response and Resource Coordinator Nandi Bynoe (A '09) was hired this week. Bynoe will begin in October, according to an email Dean of Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon sent to staff members.

While the two are affiliated with different departments — Donovan in Health Services and Bynoe in Student Affairs -- they are the only two faculty members at Tufts tasked solely with handling campus sexual assault.

Unlike Donovan, who is a mandatory reporter — an individual legally required to file a sexual assault report if told about an incident — Bynoe has a "policy-based" confidential role, according to the joint statement. Bynoe was not available for comment at the time of publication.

Alongside existing start-of-year trainings, Donovan has introduced bystander intervention trainings during a meeting about issues such as fraternity party hosting and Women's Center conversations. She said her goals are oriented toward cultural change.

"I want to meet someone before you get into a difficult situation," Donovan said. "I don't want to stop people from having fun, certainly not stopping people from having sex. I just want to make sure everyone is on board and it's something that we are consensually all agreeing to."

Donovan said she is in the initial phases of creating a cohort of student "social health educators" trained to have conversations with other students about issues surrounding sexual assault, such as consent in popular culture. These interactions are most effective when they're peer-to-peer, she added.

"I think people find it really difficult to talk about," Donovan said. "Even saying the word 'relationships' already alienates people because they're like 'I'm not dating, I'm just hooking up.' Finding the language is even hard to start that. But let's talk about what's happening, let's talk about what we're all doing. The more we talk about it the more we're aware of it."

According to federal regulation that will take effect on Oct. 1, colleges and universities will also be required to provide consent and bystander training throughout students' four years of school. While this semester juniors and seniors will be required to take an online training course called Haven, by next semester freshmen will have to participate in a three-part training program, which began during orientation, McMahon said.

Current freshmen will also be the first required to attend OEO training sessions about consent and the new sexual misconduct policy in groups of 35 to 40 students later this month and in early October, according to McMahon.

Beyond these new requirements, freshmen orientation switched its consent programming from last year's presentation Sex Signals to a different one called Speak About It, a show created by former Bowdoin College students. McMahon, a former Bowdoin administrator, said she worked with the Speak About It team when they originally devised the show in 2009.

"It was designed to be an interactive program that ... helped students think about a bystander model, that helped students think about consent and getting consent," McMahon said. "I came in looking to make this a focus before all this happened [last semester]."

Approximately 30 members of McMahon's Student Affairs office will also participate in prevention training with Donovan during a staff-wide meeting on Nov. 4. McMahon said that those faculty members, as well as others from offices that fall under the Student Affairs umbrella such as Greek Life and Residential Life, will attend trainings from the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center the week of Oct. 23.