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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, February 25, 2024

OEO to monitor DeVos' public notice process on sexual misconduct policy


Content warning: This article discusses policy surrounding sexual misconduct.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosannounced an overhaul of the federal approach toward addressing sexual misconduct accusations on college campuses earlier this month. While the policy implications have yet to be determined, any changes in the federal outline for adjudication will have direct consequences for processes at Tufts.

DeVos’ Sept. 7 statement at George Mason University signaled a major policy shift from Obama-era interpretations of Title IX, a piece of federal legislation intended to address gender discrimination in schools. Under President Barack Obama's administration, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) interpreted Title IX to require schools to take appropriate measures to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct.

In her statement, DeVos labeled Obama's system as "failed," and she insisted on a "better way forward" in handling these cases.

On her path to inform new policy, DeVos said she has consulted with survivors, rightfully and wrongfully accused perpetrators, educators and parents within higher education and K-12. She also announced a “notice-and-comment process,” which will continuously gather information to shape policy changes.

Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO)Investigator Ryan Milligan explained that Tufts' OEO team is following this process in order to prepare for any upcoming changes.

"Tufts is closely monitoring the OCR 'Notice and Comment Process' and will continue to update the Tufts community regarding any potential changes to our policy and process, if any, that may be necessary based on revised federal guidance," he told the Daily in an email.

According to Jill Zellmer, executive director of OEO and Title IX coordinator, it is unclear at the moment what the direct implications of DeVos’ statements will be.

“So far, she has not made any changes to any of the guidance that Tufts and other schools have been following since 2011,” she told the Daily in an email.

Many policy changes during the Obama-era were outlined through official statements such as the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which encouraged educational institutions to be more proactive in investigating allegations of sexual violence. The letter lowered the burden of proof in such cases to a level below traditional requirements in criminal cases. DeVos has suggested increasing the burden of proof, noting that the current process makes it more likely for respondents to be wrongfully accused.

Zellmer said the 2011 letter initiated several changes at Tufts, including in crafting its current adjudication process, in the composition of the OEO staff and through university-wide dialogue on sexual assault.

“Since that time, the university has expanded the expertise, breadth and depth of the Office of Equal Opportunity’s handling of Title IX violations and investigations, doubled the OEO staff and increased the subject matter expertise to include staff who have excellent experience working with both complainants and respondents in a respectful and empathic way," she said.

After Tufts was deemed noncompliant with Title IX in 2014, the university revisited its sexual assault policy and aimed to rectify areas where it violated federal regulation. University President Anthony Monaco formed the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force, which incorporated the perspectives of staff and students from all Tufts campuses. The framework continues to influence university policy in a new form as the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Steering Committee.

Zellmer explained that, based on feedback from the Task Force and beyond, the university has created new procedures and formed new staff positions dedicated to providing resources for students and ensuring compliance with Title IX. She does not anticipate that DeVos' statements will impact the resources created through these processes. "These were improvements directed by and for the Tufts community and there are no indications that this will change simply because of a change in the political climate," she told the Daily in an email.

Bailey Siber, an Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) executive board member, expressed concern over future changes in the adjudication process following DeVos' suggestion to increase the necessary burden of proof in sexual misconduct cases.

“In reality, if you think about situations where sexual violence sometimes occurs, it's two people with not a lot of witnesses. Sometimes substances are involved," Siber, a senior, said. "It's hard to have a full case of evidence that 100 percent proves that someone is in the wrong."

As a result, Siber said that increasing the burden of proof will have a negative impact.

"Upping those standards of what is brought to the table during the adjudication process is going to hurt survivors that are coming forward to try to seek justice," she said.

Siber added that, while the direct implications of DeVos' statement are not yet known, many survivors already feel an "intensified stigmatization" and find it difficult to feel supported.

"I think that DeVos' statement doesn't explicitly say, 'we don't care about survivors,' but all of the messages in-between the lines clearly implicate survivors and their well-being, and the likelihood of them having success if they go through an adjudication process," she said.

While Siber feels that OEO is working to remain prepared for any significant changes, she finds it difficult to know what she can expect out of the university without official communication. She stressed that the university should show more support for survivors.

"There hasn't been a presidential message, there hasn't been an email from OEO out to the Tufts community on their support for survivors and assurance that nothing is changing, or that when things do change, they will be informing the community," she said.

Siber hopes that ASAP can also play a role in providing support for students and ensuring dialogue on these issues when they arise on a national scale.

"We're trying to ensure that there's a more permanent, consistent, reliable network for survivors, whether that's finding a safe space on campus that's only for survivors every week, or having discussions with them or planning events, and also offering opportunities for allies to get involved," she said.

Sexual Misconduct Resource Specialist Nandi Bynoe said that OEO's Center for Awareness, Resources and Education (CARE) will continue its commitment to students, regardless of the results of DeVos' statement.

"CARE remains committed to supporting all students affected by sexual misconduct through our office," she told the Daily in an email.

According to Milligan, OEO programming will also continue to be an important component of student life at Tufts. 

"OEO’s trainings will continue to raise students’ awareness concerning their rights and responsibilities when it comes to issues related to all types of discrimination and harassment, including sexual misconduct, as members of the Tufts community," he said.