It's February 2014. Thanks to a number of survivor-activists, the media has thrust the issue of sexual assault on college campuses into the mainstream. The Department of Education has received federal complaints against, investigated, and/or is in the process of investigating numerous American colleges and universities, including Yale, UNC, USC, Occidental, Dartmouth,UConn, Emerson, Amherst, Carnegie Mellon, Hanover College, and Penn State over their sexual assault policies' and procedures' alleged non-compliance with the Clery Act and/or the Title IX statute. Even so, universities continue to operate with varying degrees of ineffectiveness, such as when Yale makes the news for calling rape "nonconsensual sex" punishable by "written reprimand." The number of complaints received, as well as media attention around them have spurred a response from President Obama himself, who signed a memorandum in late January 2014 creating a taskforce to address campus sexual assault from the highest echelons of government.
We never imagined that this issue would get so much attention when we began working to reform the sexual assault policy and judicial process at our own alma mater, Tufts University, over five years ago.
Then why do we feel so disappointed?
Back in the spring of 2013, on April 29th, current Tufts students wrote an open letter to their administration (signed by over 378 current students, alumni, and faculty/staff), asking for further institutional changes to make sure that survivors are supported and that Tufts truly is a space where people are as safe as possible from sexual violence.
The administration replied publicly at the end of the 2013 school year, suggesting something all-too-familiar, a working group:
"Several years ago, we created a similar working group when we developed the new sexual misconduct policy and found the sharing of information to be very beneficial."
We were actually part of one of those working groups during our senior year at Tufts, and while we found the outcome partially beneficial, what happened after we graduated tempers the success that came out of that experience.
But, to put such a quote in its rightful context, let us back up to several years ago.
Wagatwe Wanjuki didn't want to file charges with the police after two years of abuse and rape by another student. So she put her faith in the Tufts Student Judicial Process:
"First I found out about [the judicial process] because a police officer told me. I didn't even know that you could go through the judicial process, and when I found that out I thought 'Oh this is great because you hear all these horror stories about the court system. Clearly the school would be better!'"
At first, the school seemed helpful. However, as she explained to us in a phone interview:
"Once I started following through with filing the report, that's when the shadiness started happening."
She had read that the judicial process at the time imposed a one-year statute of limitations on people who file complaints, even though most students attend college for at least four years, and the Massachusetts statute of limitations for sexual assault was and still is 15 years. By the time Wagatwe filed her complaint, in the spring of 2008, the statute of limitations had passed for some incidents, but not for others. Just in case, though, Wagatwe tried to clear this up in one of her meetings with a school official:
"I strongly remember being in a meeting with [the school official] who told me that the one year statute of limitations will not be an issue for my case and to file everything.
Plus, the process said it made exceptions to the statute for assailants who could jeopardize the safety of other Tufts students. So I figure, Clearly if a student is violent, they're a threat to the bigger community, but they didn't make an exception for that."
First, they asked for more time, and then they became less forthcoming:
"The issue is that when I was dealing with the administration—up until I filed the complaint—they were very, I guess you could say, assertive, in terms of reaching out to me. So they would call, they would leave voicemails, they would email me…"
But, as Wagatwe described, after the administration chose not to pursue the complaint, the communication stopped.
Wagatwe told us that she has never gotten an explanation as to why the administration ruled the way they did; she just knew for sure that they decided unilaterally to drop the case. She was never even granted a hearing.
"I think it really hit me when I returned to school the following year where I felt like I'm surrounded by people who don't care about what happens to students, who didn't care about what happened to me, so it was something psychologically that was a very draining and upsetting thing, because you're also dealing with various triggers and memories all over the campus, and you're technically under the care of people who just don't give a shit."
Wagatwe's perpetrator stayed on campus until he graduated that year. When the Fall 2008 semester started, she was left with the memory of what had happened, and had trouble concentrating in class.
At the same time, that anger and disappointment motivated her to do something:
"I think part of it was…a way to process what had happened and prevent it, sort of feel better about it, making sure that what happened to me wasn't in vain. Even if what happened to me happened, you know–the consequences of it will last forever, but I felt like who better to get involved than someone who has dealt with the failing of the system? If I could provide a unique point of view and—so, that's basically why I got involved."
"The failing of the system" lay in Tufts' inability to make their sexual assault policy clear to her, specifically how they interpreted the policy when deciding not to pursue her case.
"I felt that the administration took advantage of my ignorance in procedures and knowledge in laws. I think a lot of it was also centering on empowering people through knowledge, or even empowering myself and being able just to be like, 'You can't use that ignorance anymore to your benefit—to get away with not taking gender-based violence seriously.'"
She joined PACT (Prevention, Awareness, Community at Tufts), a student health group run under the Health Education Department, that focused its efforts largely on issues surrounding sexual health and sexual violence. She also met another survivor who told her about SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape), an organization started at Columbia University in 2000, and then grew into a national organization that helps students across the country to revise their colleges' sexual assault policies.
One chilly Saturday morning during the spring of 2009, a small group of Tufts students, mostly women, met up with a representative from National SAFER to train us on how to demand change to our school's institutional response to sexual assault. This representative passed out printouts of the Tufts sexual assault policy, which at the time was on the Student Affairs website:
The University supports the right of the victim/survivor of a sexual assault to decide how best to utilize various University, community, private, and public remedies to address crimes of sexual assault.
Within the University, instances of sexual assault may be reported to the following offices:
What followed were five phone numbers for the Dean of Students, the Office of Equal Opportunity, and various police departments. Most of us hadn't seen this policy before, and were astonished at all the negative space. The policy included no contact numbers for the Sexual Assault Clinician, the Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator, area hospitals, or the local rape crisis center. Sexual assault/misconduct in all of its forms was not defined, so survivors would have no way of determining exactly how what happened to them would be defined and adjudicated at Tufts.Just a few sentences and five phone numbers with no indication of what would happen to survivors if one of them happened to dial a number and tell their story.
The judicial processes were equally infuriating, as there was no separate process for sexual violence, and sexual misconduct claims were handled with the same process as other minor offenses. This meant that completely inappropriate measures such as mediation (later deemed unacceptable by the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter) were being used and even encouraged for sexual violence claims, and care was not being taken to address the severity and specific sensitivity of sexual misconduct offenses.
The SAFER representative asked us to share concrete points about what was wrong with the policy and judicial processes, and then vote on them. What we came up with is excerpted here:
Problems with Tufts Policy
- No commitment to holding perpetrators accountable
- No definition of sexual assault
- No minimum disciplinary sanctions
After that, she asked us to describe and vote on our ideal sexual assault policy. Since the policy was so lacking, we did our best to come up with a few of the most achievable and immediate aspects of a good policy and judicial process. Again, this is just an excerpt of what we came up with:
The "Perfect" Tufts Policy
- Clear, accessible, easy to understand
- Sexual assault should be defined
- People involved in disciplinary procedures/handling sexual assault should be trained
- Survivor should have protection from harassment and retaliation
- Correspondence between survivor/accused and administration should be monitored by oversight person/body
- Which resource to call when should be made clear to students
The rest of the time was spent discussing how we could create the opportunity to fill in the blanks with these measures.
Through outreach on campus, student activists were beginning to hear a variety of survivor stories that further motivated them to pressure for change. To that end, Wagatwe and a few other students used campus media and blogging to put the pressure on the administration, writing op-eds that pointed out some of the plethora of shortcomings in the Tufts sexual assault policy.
A Sexual Violence Community Forum was also planned where students and community members could ask the administration and other key people about the sexual assault policies and procedures on campus. At the end of April, around 75 people gathered in the Metcalf Hall common room for this forum.
"What is Tufts' sexual assault policy?"
"How many people have had disciplinary action taken against them for sexual assault?"
Those questions and others were followed by long beats of silence and visible squirming. Nobody on the panel could give a straight answer. As the meeting went on, survivors unconnected to PACT would raise their hands and share their experiences and disappointment with Tufts' policies and procedures.
We were also surprised at the attendance and the response because Tufts students were typically overcommitted. Who knew that a forum about a campus issue–an issue in fact that the vast majority of people were silent on–would attract such an audience, such concern and interest from the campus community?
At the end, Wagatwe and two other women (one of them Alex, one of the authors of this article) stood in front of everybody, and introduced themselves as a new student group called Tufts SAFER, reading a list of ways that Tufts should improve its sexual assault policy, many of which were taken from the training.
The last request was for the administration to schedule a meeting with Tufts SAFER, within two weeks of this forum. The administration complied.
That summer, in August, the administration sent us a final draft of the 2009 Student Judicial Process. Right away, we added a three-page long sexual assault definition to the beginning, as well as local resources survivors could use for their healing. In October 2009, we got another meeting with the administration, presenting these notes in order to underscore their importance.
By then, Tufts SAFER was made up of nine core members from a variety of backgrounds, including a freshman who served as our liaison to the student senate, and helped us pass a resolution there asking for a clearer sexual assault policy. However, we were for the most part unable to move membership past that core group of nine.
Still, we plugged away on revision after revision, and by May, we had contributed to a finalized Sexual Assault Policy with many of our changes incorporated.
Revising the Judicial Process, however, proved even more challenging. That previous May, the administration had agreed to write a separate adjudication policy for sexual assault. The 2009 draft Process still had gems like this, though: "The sexual assault judicial process is generally the same as for other infractions," and still left out important clauses, such as the inadmissibility of previous sexual behavior as evidence, which is mentioned explicitly in Massachusetts State Law (Chapter 233, Section 21b).
That late spring we made a final push to issue recommendations on a new adjudication policy. As another school year wound down, we were meeting in the evenings for hours on end in the campus center, hashing out the revisions that we felt would bring fair and dignified investigations and hearings to the Student Judicial Process.
We were also about to graduate, and thus had to contend with a leadership transition. So we had the new leaders meet with the Dean of Student Affairs alone to present notes on a policy revision that came to us that May. That summer, we met up in Washington D.C. to receive an award at the Campus Progress National Conference for Best Campaign (pictured below.) While there, we also passed on pointers to our core members who were not yet graduated.
We heard from the new leadership that September, when they informed us of the implementation of the Sexual Assault Policy and the new Student Judicial Process via email. The latter was based on Harvard's "fact-finding" process at the time, in which an investigator gathers and looks at all the evidence, and then turns everything over to the Dean of Student Affairs' office. Members of Tufts SAFER had met with the Dean of Student Affairs once, right before the new process came out. The administration had written everything over the summer with hardly any student input.
We had gotten some of what we wanted in this new process. There was a separate process, the statute of limitations had been expanded to allow complaints against anyone still enrolled at the university, and those involved would now tell their stories to an impartial "fact-finder," note-taker and a support person of their choosing instead of going through a more trial-like hearing process. Yet, in our opinions, the new process was still flawed, especially related to the inclusion of confidentiality clauses and lack of oversight. One of our main concerns at the time was that, according to the written policy, the Dean of Student Affairs had near complete discretion over the final outcome, even though he (Bruce Reitman) is quoted at the time as saying, in a glowingTufts Daily article, "I will only have the benefit of the report of the fact-finder, so it's not my interest to disregard the report. If I had questions or if something remains unclear, I would ask the fact-finder to pursue some additional interview work."
Some core members of Tufts SAFER were pleased with the new policy, but we and some others were far from happy with the reforms that had taken so long to craft.
Wagatwe was not a direct part of this policy wrangling. Soon after the April 2009 Sexual Violence Community Forum, Tufts University issued her a dismissal for the poor academic performance that resulted from her dealing with her assault. She appealed the decision, which was kicked to the Dean of Undergraduate Education. He just happened to be her assailant's academic advisor, and declined the appeal.
After leaving, she took to social media, blogging in support of Tufts SAFER's efforts and joining the board of directors for the national SAFER organization. She also utilized her expertise gained through her work with national SAFER to continue to provide advice and assistance remotely to the activists on campus. When asked about how helpful social media has been to her activism, she shared how it was hard to use this tool at first:
"So I kind of learned about social media because of the Tufts stuff, and I was just sort of using it to reach out. Back then, it felt much more isolating, because I felt like I was the only one, and I wasn't willing to go out that hard about what had happened to me, because really I was embarrassed, or upset."
How about four years later?
"Now that the social justice and feminist communities are so strong on social media, it's a lot easier to educate folks, and empower folks, and to make folks feel like they're not alone. Now it serves as this interesting monument on the Internet of past writings. It makes for great institutional memory, as well as stuff for the present, and moving on into the future."
Wagatwe has gone on to found and run a popular Tumblr blog about feminist issues, Fuck Yeah, Feminists! and has been involved with organizations such as ColorofChange.org and RH Reality Check. Most notably, she is a contributor to Know Your IX, an education campaign about students' rights under Title IX in regards to their schools' response to and prevention of sexual violence.
Wagatwe was instrumental in organizing, drafting and publicizing the ED Act Now petition that called upon the Department of Education to effectively hold colleges accountable for failing to uphold Title IX in their sexual violence policies and procedures, a movement that has been vital in bringing national attention to college sexual violence.
The policy and adjudication process that Tufts SAFER worked on is no longer available online. This was because in April 2011, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights published the Dear Colleague Letter, about sexual violence and Title IX:
"Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX."
The rest of the letter mandates that educational institutions that receive federal funds, even private universities like Tufts, must update their sexual assault policies and practices to comply with this statute.
Tufts wasted no time. Within one month of this letter's publication, the university hired Sonia Jurado as Title IX investigator, and then in November, hired Jill Zellmer, as OEO (Office of Equal Opportunity) Director & Title IX Coordinator. With their leadership, the first revision of the sexual assault policy and adjudication process was folded into a new Sexual Misconduct Policy and Sexual Misconduct Adjudication Process that was specifically tailored to Title IX and the Dear Colleague Letter's guidelines.
One big change brought on by the Title IX reforms was to train certain staff members as Title IX Liaisons, to whom students could tell their experiences. These liaisons were trained to tell students about the counseling and adjudication resources they could utilize. They were also mandated to notify the Title IX Coordinator and Investigator of such an occurrence, though this would not automatically touch off an investigation. However, according to a former staff member, who had extensive clinical counseling experience in such issues, the mandated reporting aspect that resulted from the Dear Colleague Letter's guidelines on Title IX compliance and the Title IX Liaisons initially also brought about a "chill effect":
"I remember that being the buzzword very soon after all this stuff was implemented, and I remember the counseling center coming forward and saying 'Look administration, we're feeling this chill effect. All the students are terrified. No one's coming forward, no one wants to go to OEO.'"
This is because after the Dear Colleague letter, this staff member and other staff members, including RAs and other professors, whom survivors would usually confide in confidentially, were now mandated to report to OEO what they had been told, or to explicitly encourage such reporting:
"Up until then, I had said that for instance, if you don't want to tell anyone, or you want to tell your story to the police but not go further than that then that's fine, that's, you know, to keep the power in your hands, or all the things that we know to do for a survivor, and then after a day that was all taken away, that was no longer the case. And it was just really treacherous going for a chunk of time."
In addition, this staff member was concerned about the people chosen to act as Title IX Liaisons:
"Mrs. So and So in the administrative office at the desk in financial aid who has never had any interaction with students in the thirty years she's worked there, will never have any interaction with students nor will anyone ever seek her out. But that Mr. So and So in the dance department who's an out gay guy who males and females have been streaming toward with their confidence, you know their innermost stories for, you know, decades…he is the most appropriate person to train because that's who they go to. So there was just kind of a thoughtlessness, so it could have been thought through more effectively had they asked people outside the administration as well."
This staff member left the position before the changes from the Dear Colleague Letter were fully ironed out. The former employee described to us a situation in which a good deal of the changes initially implemented after the Dear Colleague Letter were found to be inaccurate, and at the time of their departure a large overhaul was occurring in which the former changes had to be revised and reworked.
Years earlier, Tufts' Health Education department had hired Elaine Theodore to reach out to students on a number of campus health issues. She ended up focusing mostly on sexual violence because of the high level of need for this type of education and outreach on campus, and to that end, was mainly known on campus as the Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator. After she left Tufts of her own accord in March of 2012, however, the Health Education department decided to discontinue that position.
Elaine's role included more than distributing sexual violence resources and working on the health education staff. She served as the staff support person for PACT and coordinated education efforts that resulted from this group. Whereas PACT students previously ran a sexual violence education program for incoming freshmen called "In The SACK," this program and other PACT activities fell apart without Elaine, leaving the students without a clear staff support person and to attempt to rebuild these efforts on their own through the creation of student groups ASAP (Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention) and CCN (Consent Culture Network).
We checked in with key Tufts administrative members and staff, as well as student activists, back in September and October. Said Ian Wong (Director of Health Education) at that time in an email interview, the reason for discontinuing the Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator position was to alleviate confusion about confidentiality:
"We discontinued that term because we found it misled students into believing that the position was a confidential counseling resource rather than a source of information who could answer questions or refer students to other appropriate resources"…"The position in question was always that of Health Educator; the term Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator was an informal and inaccurate term."
But though Ian Wong described a current sexual violence education program consisting of ongoing programs in the Residence Halls, Sexual Assault Awareness Month events, a community forum and trainings to students groups, in addition to the mandatory Sex Signals freshman orientation program, the current student activists told us about a temporary backslide in programming, as well as general confusion when this position was discontinued. As Kumar Ramanathan, a Tufts junior and organizer in the student groups Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) and the Consent Culture Network (CCN) explained back in September:
"Elaine's position at Tufts had changed over time, but she did do the heavy lifting on sexual violence education and prevention work when she was here"…"There hadn't been a serious conversation about how to fill that vacuum since she left until the open letter and the task force [(the working group)]."
Throughout this academic year, Tufts student activists have been working again with the administration to improve institutional response to sexual violence as well as prevention and education efforts on campus. The current working group is split into three subcommittees: Policy and Procedures, Resources and Support, and Prevention and Education. One of the group's priorities is to find two new staff members to focus on sexual violence response and prevention. Nina Bernstein, a Tufts senior and organizer in ASAP and CCN, is co-chair of the Resources and Support subcommittee of the working group with Kumar. She is one of the people working on defining the roles for the new staff members they are proposing to be hired.
"We see two roles, and Elaine did some of both. One is education and prevention work, and the other being helping survivors in finding resources and finding services, whether it be mental health services, whether it be housing accommodations, or academic accommodations or services…which is something that Elaine also did. And also [one of these staff persons] helping them understand [what to expect in] the reporting process is something that we're ironing out. We're hoping that one of these positions can be a confidential clinician to be more accessible to survivors."
Although Ian Wong described Elaine's title of Sexual Violence Resource Coordinator as informal and inaccurate, her position was advertised as such on Health Education posters during her tenure, and until this past October even in absence of someone to fill this role, when this title appears to have been finally removed from the department's literature.
Although education and prevention may be lacking in some aspects, it does appear to be growing in others. Beginning next year and in response to the Campus SaVE Act, a new tool called The Haven, an online training program in sexual misconduct awareness and bystander intervention, will be mandatory for all transfer students and incoming freshmen. Jill Zellmer and Sonia Jurado also described to us the trainings provided by OEO. Adjudicators, panel members, intake officers, and Title IX Liaisons are trained in an all-day training every summer and mid-year. OEO also provides targeted trainings at orientation programs for student leaders such as RAs and RDs, and for "at-risk groups" such as Greeks and athletes. In October, a new mandatory training program was rolled out for all faculty and staff on the smaller Grafton campus of Tufts because, as Zellmer and Jurado explained:
"The mandate to report to HR or OEO anything that rises to the level of potential discrimination and/or harassment, including sexual misconduct, is an employee responsibility that many faculty and staff are not aware is required."
When we checked in with the student activists this month, they too were pleased with the trainings offered by OEO, but emphasized that these trainings come from OEO's role in policy and process, and do not replace the need for more extensive, better coordinated education about consent, rape culture, active bystanding, healthy relationships, etc. John Kelly, a Tufts junior and organizer in ASAP and CCN described OEO as doing an admirable job, but he worries that they are being charged with too many tasks.
"The fact of the matter is the people who are doing those trainings are Sonia [Jurado] and Jill [Zellmer], who when doing those trainings are giving up time they could be using to investigate and adjudicate these cases that are now sometimes taking twice as long as they should be, so basically because they are stretched so thin and because this responsibility of doing trainings has fallen on them, their ability to perform what should be their sole job and is a huge job has I think been compromised. And I love OEO, they're amazing. But it's not their job and I think they could be doing a faster job if they weren't also responsible for doing all of this other stuff."
By providing guidelines for addressing sexual violence through the Dear Colleague Letter, the sexual misconduct investigations have been compartmentalized and regulated through the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) on campus. As Jill Zellmer explained to us in an email interview, the April 2011 release of the Dear Colleague Letter caused Tufts to completely expand and revise the adjudication process University-wide and to re-work the Sexual Assault Policy into a Sexual Misconduct/Sexual Assault Policy that is:
"…much more comprehensive of all topics of sexual misconduct, explicitly including stalking, relationship violence, sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and sexual assault."
The policy also revised the former hearings to be more sensitive to survivors. According to Zellmer:
"Our new investigatory process consists of one-on-one fact-finding interviews with those individuals involved in the case; that fact-finding investigation may be conducted by a neutral Title IX investigator from the OEO or by a fact finder chosen by the Director of OEO from outside the University. This best-practice approach replaced the previous model of adjudication in which the complaining party and the responding party faced each other in a hearing which both attended."
An anonymous online reporting tool called Ethicspoint has been implemented, and a web form designed specifically for sexual misconduct reporting is a part of that tool. According to Jill Zellmer, a promising increase in reporting has coincided with this and other recent efforts.
"We have seen a significant increase in reporting over the last two years – about 60% — which we believe is a very good sign. This shows a confidence in our policy and procedures as more students become aware [of] them. Sexual misconduct and sexual assault happen at an alarming rate on campuses across the country (1 in 4 [college aged] women [have survived rape or attempted rape since age 14]) but the reporting level is very low (only about 5%). We believe that an increase in reporting on our campus means that students are getting the information they need to feel confidence in OEO and trust the process and policies."
Yet, when we researched the school's annual Jeanne Clery Act compliant Public Safety Report, the sexual assault reports actually seemed to decline in the years in which Zellmer reported that they had increased. Kim Thurler, Director of Public Relations for Tufts, explained that the numbers differ because the Clery data is more limited in geographical scope and type of misconduct reportable. In addition, Clery data is gathered by calendar year and OEO data by academic year.
We ourselves were curious to review the data to which Jill Zellmer referred, that shows the 60% increase in reporting. However, when we asked to review these statistics, Kim Thurler reported to us that this information has not yet been publicly released because, as she claimed, it is difficult to report these numbers publicly without "the risk of revealing anyone's identity, breaching confidentiality, or compromising safety." Though the statistics were not released to us, according to a Tufts Daily report, 63 incidents of sexual misconduct were reported to OEO during the 2012-2013 school year. It is unclear as to whether the increase in reporting that Zellmer described is due to a growing level of trust in OEO or simply the stricter reporting guidelines brought about by the Dear Colleague Letter and the addition of the Title IX Liaisons. In addition to reporting statistics, the administrative and staff members we interviewed did not verify the number of perpetrators who have been sanctioned for sexual violence before and since the policy changes, and what the issued sanctions were. It is therefore difficult to determine if the current Sexual Misconduct Adjudication Process truly brings justice to more survivors.
Transparency in disclosing sexual misconduct reporting numbers is crucial, as the student activists reiterated when we checked in with them early this month. Key information such as the breakdown of these statistics (rape, harassment, voyeurism, stalking, etc.), the method of reporting (anonymous reporting, RAs, Title IX Liaisons), and how many of these incidents were repeat offenders/survivors could be used to help better understand how to make improvements at Tufts. In fact, just recently Columbia University agreed to release its sexual assault numbers while under pressure for transparency from student activists and controversy regarding the school's handling of sexual violence.
"I was told to my face…that the reason why my case took so long was because they didn't know how to deal with a male survivor and they didn't know how to deal with rape when the survivor was a male."
John Kelly reported that his assailant raped him in August of 2012, but his judicial case lasted until mid-January of 2013, one of the first complaints handled with the completely revised judicial processes at Tufts. After four years of policy revisions and student activism, John described feeling unsupported, re-traumatized, and stigmatized by a process that was ostensibly intended to protect him. At the conclusion of the process, his perpetrator was determined to have committed sexual assault, and punished with just a one-year suspension from campus.
During the course of the over 150-day process, John's perpetrator remained on campus. Though retaliation was explicitly prohibited for either party, protection was limited, as the two shared no classes and did not both live on campus.
"Something as simple as going to see my friends in Tufts SQ, the a-capella group, like something as simple as going to that concert became incredibly difficult for me because there was no way to know if he was going to be there."
John reported that the judicial panel's determination of his perpetrator's sanction relied on their choice to define his attack as "sexual assault" rather than rape. He attributed the classification of his experience as a less punishable form of sexual assault to a lack of education among members of the Tufts administration and judicial panel about male-on-male sexual violence.
"And so basically what happened is they said that this guy sexually assaulted me. Like, they're not disputing that. And I may use the word rape and Tufts may disagree with that, but I was sexually assaulted by a Tufts student, he is then a sexual assaulter, assailant. An assailant can return to Tufts University. He can come back for a year, for two years, for three years, however long it takes him to finish his degree, he can come back for it. And Tufts knows that he is an assailant. It's not hidden, it's not something that they're denying."
When we spoke with John in September, he described a constant fear that his assailant could be planning to return to campus at any time from the Spring semester until the time of his graduation in 2015. Furthermore, since his assailant is a year older than him, the perpetrator's return at the end of this one-year suspension period would have put the two on track to graduate together. In the past few months, the assailant was prevented from returning to campus for undisclosed reasons, which has come too late to prevent the fear that John felt when his assailant's return was still a possibility.
Since John's case and due to his input, the Tufts policy's definition of rape has been revised to be more specific and inclusive of LGBTQ survivors and his experience, and he is currently working on more revisions through the current working group.
"I'm hopeful that this new definition will help show the administration that sex takes many forms, and sex within the LGBTQ community cannot be essentialized in the way they had been previously handling them. I'm hoping this will lead to more strict punishment of assailants of our queer students and other survivors of same-sex sexual violence, and improve the safety of our queer community here on campus."
One of the ways in which John hopes the new definition will be more inclusive of a variety of survivors is for the definition to take the impetus off of penetration to the survivor and include any non-consensual penetrative act as rape.
"It's a little sad, because if my case were to go through the process now, it would be very clear that I was raped, and I don't believe my assailant would even have the option of returning to campus. Instead, I'm having to deal with that very real possibility."
When questioned about whether students are reporting differing experiences with the Sexual Misconduct processes on campus depending on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc., Jill Zellmer replied as follows:
"We are unable to discuss specific cases and need to respect the privacy and confidentiality of the parties involved. We can say that we have received reports from and worked with survivors from every student demographic and respondents have also been from every student demographic. Our experience has been that student survivors have had a similar level of satisfaction with the process, regardless of their identities. As previously noted, our policy is inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity and gender expression. Our panel members are chosen, in part, with the desire to reflect the student demographics represented in cases."
Yet, though Wagatwe and John dealt with the Tufts processes years apart, both described a lack of sensitivity that can be improved through intersectional education (sensitive to the interaction of multiple systems of oppression based on sex, class, race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, ability, culture, etc.)
As John explained, it wasn't just his own case in which the very definition of rape for LGBTQ survivors was misunderstood. As he described to us, one administrator (who also sat on the three-person adjudication panel in John's case) told him the only way a woman could rape another woman was through the use of a foreign object, which is not representative of sexual activity between two women, and marginalizes and diminishes sex acts between same-gender partners.
Related to the panel'sconfusion over the very definition of rape for male and LGBTQ survivors, John, as a bisexual male survivor, had to contend with an adjudication panel that had, to his knowledge, no LGBTQ member on it and no known involvement in LGBTQ issues on campus.
Overall, though John described the investigation conducted by the Office of Equal Opportunity as "investigated fully and well and completely" and the Title IX Coordinator and the Title IX investigator as "fantastic…really affirming, really understanding individuals," the experience he described with the judicial panel and some other administrative officials was quite different. In addition to a lack of education about LGBTQ sexual violence and male survivors, John described a lack of support and communication about steps of the process and his options, as well as a general hostility and a feeling of coldness on the part of some members of the administration:
"I would have liked to feel a lot less like my sex life was under a microscope and more be treated as an individual who had gone through something traumatizing, I was told numerous times that I should just be respecting them and what's happened and they've done more than they should have for me. I was told by a TUPD officer that I should consider transferring."…"They basically took the approach that, if you are to be nonpartisan or unbiased, you must not be empathetic. And the result was a very cold, very detached investigation about something that was very personal, very real, and very traumatizing."
Both Wagatwe and John also described a lack of extended support infrastructure after filing their complaints. Though both Wagatwe and John had positive experiences with their academic deans, in Wagatwe's case her dean's advocacy was not enough to prevent her expulsion from the university by an academic committee. Whether academic leniency as a whole has improved since Wagatwe's time at Tufts is unclear. Even now, according to the student activists' open letter, the only official way for survivors to receive academic leniency is to contact their academic dean, which the activists argue places an "undue burden on survivors and could be triggering or problematic based on the survivor's particular experiences as well as their relationship with their dean."
A similar problem has been highlighted with the process through which survivors must request change of housing. Officially, survivors who live on campus must go through the Office of Residential Life's process for resolving roommate conflicts in order to change their housing, disclosing personal information to a number of tangentially related parties. Survivors who live off campus are given virtually no Tufts process at all through which they can change housing, nor is there infrastructure in place to help survivors obtain housing changes through Massachusetts law. The activists explained that the Office of Equal Opportunity has been helping survivors access these resources, but the services are not formalized or publicized through them. The Resources and Support as well as the Prevention and Education working group subcommittees are ironing out details on whether the proposed new resource coordination hire would be responsible for coordinating housing and other survivor accommodations, or whether these tasks would fall under someone else's purview, and are campaigning for a long-term goal of setting up an office to take charge of this coordination.
When we asked if the school had followed up with her to offer resources and make sure that she was doing okay after her case, Wagatwe replied that there had been "no follow-up at all." When asked the same question in September, John replied that communication had been minimal, and though a few administrators had been sympathetic and helpful, they were "few and far between."
The school has also still failed to institute a professionally run support group for survivors of sexual assault, a void that ASAP members have attempted to fill to some capacity, and that Kumar described as:
"probably the most atrocious lack of infrastructure…At some point, people would just be coming to our groups, like, 'So…where can I talk to other survivors?' It was like, '…we don't know.' Which was a really scary answer to have."
The student activists are currently hoping that their request for a resource and support coordinator staff person will fulfill the role of ensuring institutional support for a professionally run survivor support group.
Like Wagatwe, John is determined to help to ensure that future survivors at Tufts are afforded better protections and experience better treatment after reporting sexual violence. He is a FOCUS (Freshman Orientation Community Service Pre-Orientation) group leader, and when we spoke in September he described the incoming freshmen as one of his great motivators to be involved in and continue his activism.
"This past week, I spent five days with nine incoming freshmen, and I just want to make Tufts a better place for them, because they're going to be here a lot longer than I am. I have two years left, they have four. And if, God forbid, something were to happen to them, I want them to know what their resources are and I want those resources to be the best that they possibly can be."
One of his main projects is the establishment of a witness advocate program to support and assist students navigating Tufts' oft-confusing sexual misconduct policy and adjudication process. An advocate program's establishment was also in hot debate back in 2009. As the former Tufts staff-person put it:
"I think there was a very severe and great need over time for some kind of an advocacy program on campus, and there was pushback left right and center the entire time I was there."
It was something that we witnessed in our activism on campus as well, hearing reports from survivors who felt confused and unsupported by the bureaucratic processes surrounding their cases. Five years later, John explained feeling the same confusion about what to expect from step to step in the process, despite the allowance of a "support person" in the written judicial processes.
"I was told that I could bring a friend into the meetings but then what ended up happening is I was never given enough fair warning of when these meetings were going to take place. So I got a phone call from Dean Reitman telling me to go to his office immediately, you know, it's hard to rustle up a support person in five minutes as you're walking across campus."
A support person is quite different from an advocate. The current judicial process allows both parties to bring their own support people to accompany them to any part of the judicial process. Whereas survivors are officially allowed to bring trained support people from outside organizations, in cases like John's, bringing that person in from the outside to accompany him to his meetings would have been impossible on such short notice. Other support people consist of friends and family members, who would not necessarily be trained in supporting survivors of sexual violence or in interpreting the judicial processes at Tufts. John's student senate resolution calls for an established advocate program that is trained to specifically assist students in navigating the specific judicial processes at Tufts University.
In fact, it even seems that Tufts was actually closer to an advocacy program with 2010 version of the revised judicial process, which included a similar option for a "support person," but explicitly stated that the university would strive to maintain a pool of trained support people on hand whom complainants and respondents were encouraged to utilize, though they could choose their own support person if desired.
As an active member of the student senate, he passed a resolution calling for an established witness advocate program for both parties in the sexual misconduct judicial processes on campus. The resolution was unanimously approved by student senate members, but John expressed concern in September that the Tufts administration would not be willing to fund the program if they did not receive a grant from the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women in the coming year. Our email interview with key members of the Tufts staff and administration revealed the unfortunate news that this grant was not received this year. One of the working group's current goals is to develop a funding structure for sexual violence prevention and response that is not funded by grants, but is instead centrally funded by the university.
The DOJ's grant program was a subject of discussion when we attended Tufts as well. In February 2010, aninvestigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that Tufts had received several grants from the Justice Department, yet had never suspended, expelled, issued reprimands, sent the accused for counseling, or required them to do community service during the five-year time period (2003-2008),despite 48 reports of sexual assault on campus. The study notes that, according to Justice Department records, at the time of the 2010 investigative report, Tufts had been given $1.3 million in campus grant funds since 1999.
When we spoke in September, John framed the resistance to the establishment of an advocate program as a question of administrative prioritization, not of a lack of available funding:
"You know, you take one kid's tuition and that pays for a witness advocate."
"Every single year we spend $3,000 to bring an ice cream truck to campus. We have fireworks going off this year after our Fall Ball replacement, this event called the Fall Gala is going to have a fireworks show after it, and like that's great. I'm super excited for fireworks. I really am. I think it's going to be a super fun night. But I also really didn't like getting raped, and I also really did not like the way the administration handled me. And if we could not have fireworks for one night, but make every student who has to go through the sexual assault process a little more at ease going into a meeting with some people who have proven themselves time and again to not know how to handle these issues, I feel pretty comfortable not having fireworks, and I feel pretty comfortable saying that most Tufts students would be comfortable without fireworks if that was the cost."
The Open Letter
There is more to ending rape culture at Tufts than implementing a sound policy and adjudication process. The school continues to lack in education and healing resources for survivors and the campus at large. This is why ASAP and CCN have pushed for one office, with two staff members minimum to coordinate all of this. As Kumar says:
"I honestly think that an office that deals with sexual violence as a holistic issue [is what we need]."
"So dealing with both—in the simplest terms, dealing with prevention and response. And prevention includes awareness and education. And response includes adjudication and healing. I would hope that it's a place that a survivor could go to, for example, for the housing accommodations they need, the academic accommodations they need, and then decide whether they want to pursue a case, through the school or through the police, and if so go to OEO or through TUPD, and if they do decide to go through with this case, then maybe somebody from this office could serve as an advocate. And so on."
With students leaving every four years, and with the faces in the administration changing every so often as well, it's important that such reforms are permanently institutionalized, which ASAP and CCN hope will happen with this office.
Amongst other initiatives, members of Tufts ASAP and CCN (including John, Kumar, and Nina) wrote and presented an Open Letter on Policy & Institutional Reform to the Tufts administration in April of 2013. The letter calls for institutional support for survivors and the accused through advocacy, clear and accessible resources, revised definitions that are more inclusive of LGBTQ survivors, extended support infrastructure, and improved education. One of their main demands is for the formation of the aforementioned dedicated "Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office" modeled on a similar office at Harvard University. The proposed office would be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Clery Act, the Campus SaVE Act, Title IX, and the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, and to coordinate all sexual violence prevention, awareness, and response efforts on campus. OEO would still carry out all adjudication process and policies that Title IX regulations mandate, but the dedicated office would provide an access point to such operations.
In November 2010, Anthony Monaco was hired as the new University President. Three years into his presidency, we have seen promising developments in his commitment to addressing sexual misconduct on campus. John noted that at the matriculation ceremony this year, President Monaco:
"actually mentioned sexual assault and he mentioned that it is a problem on Tufts' campus and it's something that the administration takes very seriously. Which was the first time in recent memories, I've seen the last three matriculation addresses, and it was the first time in three years, in President Monaco's three years, that he's addressed sexual assault. And so that was really, I think that's a good sign. I think it might indicate the beginning of a cultural shift within the administration to start to take these issues seriously. But you know, I'm trying not to be too positive about it and too optimistic…It's been an uphill battle and it's always going."
President Monaco responded to the letter and its detailed reform proposals by establishing the aforementioned "working group" of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and other community members to convene to work on sexual violence procedure and policy and the institutional commitment to Title IX. Each of the working group's three sub-groups (Policy and Procedures, Resources and Support, and Prevention and Education) now has administrator/student co-chairs.
When we heard about yet another working group, we were dubious. Our working group in 2009-2010 was characterized by infrequent meetings, and changes that were slowly made and less than pleasing. In 2012, a more formal and larger "working group" was established which would be divided into smaller committees, but the group seems to have never fully come to fruition.
As the former Tufts staff-person explained to us:
"It's the only way to do it, is some kind of a working group"… "so these people could stop having 17,000 conversations and actually come to one meeting, be judicious, use our time well, have goals." "But [the 2012 group] began to disintegrate because people wanted to have these smaller committees, so not everyone would have to show up to this larger working group. It began to be a weird logistical thing. So it started to lose its steam when people were less interested in coming to a more substantial group."
Earlier this month, Kumar described feeling heartened by the reforms being outlined in the current working group.
"Our strategy has really become institutionalizing this in the long term and making sure that this work doesn't happen in fits and starts anymore, and I never thought I'd be saying this but I'm actually pretty optimistic that we can do it."
Nina Bernstein echoed his optimism:
"It feels like at the moment we are really working towards substantive changes at Tufts."
However, John's outlook is a bit more skeptical:
"It's been exciting to find faculty members and staff members from all of these different schools that also realize sort of how crappy Tufts has been for so long, but you know, the fact of the matter is power lies in a few hands and those hands still I don't think are grasping what's going on completely."
The Resources and Support and the Prevention and Education subcommittees are on track to make recommendations to President Monaco concerning new hires before April 7th, although the student activists still hope to push for the dedicated office staffed by at least two people, that was asked for originally in the Open Letter. After the Policy Subcommittee is finished making the language of the sexual misconduct policy more accessible to students, it hopes to tackle changes to the adjudication process.
Positive change is being made, not just at Tufts University but across the nation, due largely to the blossoming student activist movement surrounding campus sexual violence. Both John and Wagatwe are involved in this national movement in order to support other student activists experiencing similar institutional challenges on their campuses. John is now serving on the Department of Education's VAWA Negotiated Rulemaking Committee.He has also been active in two of the national campaigns on which Wagatwe has been instrumental as well, Know Your IX and ED Act Now. Whereas Know Your IX seeks to educate campus sexual violence survivors about their rights under Title IX and the ability to file a Title IX complaint with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights if those rights are violated, ED Act Now seeks to hold the Department of Education accountable for providing efficient, thorough, and fair investigations of Title IX complaints. Recently, Know Your IX and ED ACT NOW have joined forces so that the latter is a specific action under Know Your IX's overall effort.
John and Wagatwe were also among the survivor-activists who personally delivered the ED Act Now petition in an organized protest July 15th, 2013in Washington DC. As a result of this protest and 175,227 signature petition, Wagatwe, John and other activists have attended several meetings (in person and by phone) with key power holders such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, special advisor to Vice President Biden Lynn Rosenthal, the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff for Michelle Obama (who also serves as the Executive Director for the President's Council on Women and Girls) Tina Tchen, and other officials from the White House, the Department of Justice, the Department of Education and the Office For Civil Rights to discuss governmental responsibility to uphold Title IX on college campuses as it relates to sexual violence.
Enforcement of Title IX is crucial to schools fulfilling their responsibility to protect survivors. As John says, in reference to his national work on Title IX enforcement activism:
"What ends up happening is the Department of Education investigates these schools, nothing happens, so the schools don't feel like they have to change. So they don't change, or they change a little tiny thing on paper to appease them and then they don't change the culture or they don't change the people behind the culture."
Though Title IX was passed over 40 years ago, the ED Act Now petition claims that according to the National Institute of Justice, nearly 2 in 3 schools are still do not follow anti-violence law.
We confirmed with a representative from the US Department of Education Press Office that their Office of Civil Rights has received six complaints involving Tufts in the past ten years that include Title IX allegations. Of these six complaints, one remains under investigation. Among the five cases that are closed, one resulted in a finding of insufficient evidence, and four were dismissed for various reasons (i.e. the complaint was withdrawn, lack of sufficient detail to infer discrimination, the complaint was not timely filed, and there was no jurisdiction/complaint not timely filed). None have resulted in a noncompliance finding. But it is not just Tufts that has failed to receive sanctions resulting from Title IX complaints. The ED Act Now petition claims that the Department of Education has consistently failed to exercise its ability to issue noncompliance findings and impose sanctions on schools, instead issuing "voluntary resolution agreements" – signed promises that the school will do better in the future. In 2012, as the ED Act Now petition notes, an investigation of Yale University noted a grievance procedure that students reported was "very unfriendly to victims of sexual misconduct," resulting in "tragic, tragic stories." Yet, this investigation was once again ended with a voluntary resolution agreement. The DOE's inaction, said John, is exemplified by the ongoing injustices at Tufts and Yale.
"You can look at Yale or you can look at Tufts. Yale just finished a Title IX investigation and they came up finding that Yale was [not non-compliant]. And then this year, they came up with that report that said, that used the term "nonconsensual sex" as something other than rape. And then Tufts University gets investigated [several] times in the past ten years and then this year this same stuff happens to me and another investigation is filed by someone else or begins through another process. So, you know, it becomes very apparent that Title IX is not being enforced because these schools keep having these issues."
The national movement surrounding Title IX has united over 800 survivors and activists through social media (a group known as the "IX Network"), and the increasing media attention on college sexual violence, the Campus SaVE Act, and the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter's reforms to campus procedures have pushed the movement to a new height of power to make positive change. As the former Tufts staff-person put it:
"It's become a national discussion. When I first got to Tufts you didn't hear jack. I mean there was the DOJ grant, but that was it. And that was low level, low totem pole level. And I think now it's become increasingly up higher on the totem pole and on the national discussion."
Wagatwe echoed this optimism:
"The movement has changed. It's less fragmented. I think now you see this national movement that's happening, which has—which combats one of the most pervasive parts of sexual violence, right? Which is the stigma and the silence around it and the invisibility. So that kind of shatters that screen. And there's a lot that has been proven now, that campus sexual assault is a problem, and when schools don't take it seriously, it's bad. I think there's a great start in terms of the narrative."
And just recently, at the end of January, President Obama himself publicly stated his dedication to ending the campus sexual violence epidemic by forming The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, a decision influenced by the ED Act Now campaign in which Wagatwe and John are very involved. In fact, the ED Act Now team received a call from Tina Tchen herself thanking them for their activism. On January 31st, ED Act Now released an official response to the new White House task force, in which they expressed their gratitude and joy, as well as reiterated some of their original demands that remain unanswered. And while the Tufts student activists with whom we spoke expressed some frustration about the lack of inclusivity of the language being used in terms of gender, what they described as narrow visions of what sexual violence is and what justice can look like, and highlighted a need for student survivor input, intersectionality, and education and prevention efforts in the President's task force, they seemed encouraged and excited by this development.
The increase in national conversation around the issue has trickled down to an increase in student concern and involvement on campus, Nina Bernstein said.
"In the fall of 2012, I started seeing a lot of people on campus who wanted to talk about sexual assault…suddenly it seemed like people from other groups on campus, like activist groups, were contacting us and trying to collaborate and then over the last year, there's definitely a lot more movement toward activism and action…I think its made people more aware, and more willing to talk about this issue on college campuses. In terms of how much the national attention has affected the administration, I think I'll have to wait and see."
Despite the increased concern and care from the campus community, it is still proving difficult for the activists on campus to motivate large groups of students to engage in the more time-demanding aspects of anti-violence work. As Nina described to us, students tend to drop out of the movement as the semesters progress and they become busier with their workload and other commitments.
"We were trying to write a letter, plan an educational workshop, or write the open letter to the administration, and it required people to simply sit down and write things, usually over Google docs. That'sjust much harder to coordinate, and to get people to commit to–and that's entirely understandable. We are all students first, and should not have to spend our time lobbying for the University to provide real support to survivors of assault."
With already busy and demanding schedules, burnout and exhaustion can be especially difficult for survivor-activists, but activism can at the same time also be an empowering healing experience. As John put it:
"I think that in a lot of ways it's been really helpful. It's connected me with other survivors across the nation who have affirmed my experiences and been wonderful and helpful and beautiful inspiring individuals. But at the same time it does get really frustrating. It gets frustrating to talk about it so much, it gets frustrating to, to always feel like you have to be on, and always trying to be available to do things."…"It's definitely been a journey, it's been a struggle, but it's really, it's been something that's ended up being really powerful for me."
Looking Back, Looking Forward
We graduated college fully aware that the limited time and influence of our work and the administration's policy revisions had by no means transformed Tufts' response to sexual violence, but we were hopeful that it had helped bring an issue that was once largely ignored to the table and pave the way for future groundbreaking revisions. Over three and a halfyears later, we are dismayed to learn that anyone should still be feeling re-traumatized and unsupported by a process which we had sought to improve.
Over five years of student activism, national legal reforms, and administrative changes at our alma-mater have made great improvements in the policy and procedures surrounding sexual violence on campus. Yet, John's story and the students' Open Letter remind us just how flawed an improved policy and judicial process can be and how improvement does not mean that all goals have been reached, especially when it comes to putting such policies into practice. The Office of Equal Opportunity has done an admirable job of writing sensitivity and intersectionality into their documents, but the administration as a whole has been lacking on enforcing these rules with dignity and respect for survivors, their trauma, and aspects of their identities that affect their experience.
So with great appreciation for all of the change that has been made at Tufts, we stand in full support of Tufts ASAP and CCN and their Open Letter on Policy & Institutional Reform. We implore the Tufts administration to immediately begin plans to establish a "Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office" on campus according to the Open Letter's guidelines, and not just stop at a replacement for the previous Health Education professional who was previously tasked with coordination of sexual violence resources and education; implement an advocate program for both parties in sexual violence hearings; ensure academic leniency and housing change options for survivors; provide adequate training and education for students, faculty and staff that is sensitive to survivors of varying backgrounds and experiences; and establish a 24-hour hotline for survivors, friends and allies.
We must also reiterate that Title IX enforcement is not enough. College campuses need to change their culture. It is not enough to provide resources and recourse for justice to survivors. For too long, students, faculty, and administration members have perpetuated permissive attitudes and justifications for sexual assault, and have participated in blaming victims and other byproducts of college life, such as drinking, rather than the perpetrators themselves. We hope that discussions around campus rape culture are occurring at all levels, including in Obama's task force, and that the working group at Tufts builds their recommendations for Sexual Violence staff members, and eventually an entire office on this issue, with this need in mind.
In working and networking with activists on other college campuses, we have come to the disheartening realization that not just at Tufts but across the US, making positive change in the handling of sexual violence on college campuses is slow-moving, difficult, and requires constant revision and oversight. And we have also learned that student activism and input is integral to ensuring that reforms are made and properly implemented. We hope that the Tufts community as a whole is committed to sexual violence policy and procedural reform in the long run. At the working group kickoff, President Monaco said that he hopes that Tufts will be a leader in sexual assault response and education, not a follower.
If that is to be the case, according to Kumar, "Then we have very far to go."
John, Wagatwe, and the rest of the ED Act Now team will be meeting with senior White House officials this Friday to discuss governmental responsibility to enforce Title IX on university campuses pertaining to sexual violence. You can show your support by signing their most recent petition at here.
This post originally appeared on The Toast. Republished with permission.