CONTENT WARNING: Title IX and Sexual Misconduct

The Presidential Working Group (PWG) was created in September 2019 with a defined charge:

Formation of the Presidential Working Group in Early September

Working Group members were chosen based on their representation of different College constituencies - students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Broad representation was suited to the task of surveying the whole of the sexual misconduct prevention and response ecosystem as opposed to each of its constituent parts. While staff members with a direct role in the systems under review were consulted as ex-officio members, they were not themselves on the Working Group in keeping with best practices for program review. It is our belief that the diversity of perspectives and skill sets brought to the table by Working Group members significantly enriched our work and outcomes.

Our process entailed meeting weekly throughout the academic year, supported by outside experts in the Title IX field, and in conversation with all ex-officio members. We learned about the Title IX law, regulations, and guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education and surveyed evolving best practices of handling sexual misconduct at comparably sized colleges and universities. We discussed various provisions of Emerson’s Title IX policy and procedures as they relate to students, the choices that Emerson made, and the alternative yet compliant choices that would be available. Our consultants interviewed various stakeholders on campus, including all ex-officio members of the PWG, and presented information about deficits in the working relationships between offices. A group exercise related to information flows during a case gave Working Group members the opportunity to discuss what choices are being made by various offices and learn how other institutions would approach those same situations. The Working Group then met with all ex officio members for additional discussion and follow-up questions. Formulation of findings and draft recommendations occupied the remainder of our weekly sessions.

It is regrettable that two student members of the Working Group resigned at different stages of our work, both of whom had particular insights to share; however, we did our best to assess the perceived shortcomings through extended outreach efforts so as to enrich our findings and strengthen our recommendations. 

This draft report is broken down into three sections:

  • Values that guided our work;
  • Key findings and insights; and
  • Draft recommendations

A communication from the Working Group in early April clarifies the process of community feedback to be conducted online this Spring and through an in-person Community Forum in Fall 2020.

https://today.emerson.edu/2020/04/03/update-from-the-presidential-working-group

Values that Guided Our Work

The PWG wishes to extend its appreciation and respect to the members of the Title IX team, to survivors and to all members of the Emerson community who have demonstrated a passion and commitment to the campus’ safety and well-being. The work is complex, challenging, difficult and nuanced. The purpose of this report is to share findings and offer recommendations to evolve and enhance the strong and committed Title IX work thus far. 

The PWG approached its work by balancing best practices in Title IX with the vision of a community of care and the demands of federal compliance. Our chief value has been to ensure that all members of our student community are treated with the utmost care and dignity. We uphold the values laid out in the President’s statement upon forming the Working Group; that is, to “foster a community that is free from power-based interpersonal violence”; “to create an environment that empowers individuals to come forward to report instances that are antithetical to the College’s values”; and “to provide a process for addressing these instances that is fair and equitable for all parties.”

The Working Group recognizes that the U.S. Department of Education has, at the time of this writing, issued proposed regulations that would require many changes to the formal investigation and adjudication process for sexual misconduct cases.  If these proposed changes are adopted into final regulations, it may change the dynamics in these procedures and work to shift the balance of support felt by complainants and respondents. Consistent with the values expressed above, we encourage the College to read the regulations as specifying a floor for protections, rather than a ceiling, and continue working toward the goal of treating all of our students with the utmost care and dignity both during and after any Title IX process. The College’s values should continue to be our touchpoint as we work as a community to ensure continued compliance with whatever may be required by final regulations.

The Working Group kept these values at the forefront as we probed the motivations behind the series of incidents that occurred during the closing weeks of the Spring 2019 semester, in which the names of students who were alleged to have violated the College’s Sexual Misconduct Policy were publicly posted. Our findings and recommendations are oriented to responding to the gaps within our ecosystem of care surfaced by students who felt the need to take matters into their own hands. It is our sincere hope that, once implemented, our recommendations will motivate students to act inside and not outside the systems and processes carefully crafted to sustain and nurture a College community free from power-based interpersonal violence and to fairly investigate and justly redress wrongs when they do occur. Only then can we be assured that our handling of sexual misconduct is holistically, with consistency and care, an apt expression of our stated institutional values.

Key Findings and Insights

Trust

  • There is a lack of trust on the part of students that the College’s response to sexual misconduct, including those instances adjudicated by the Title IX process, will result in a timely and fair conclusion.
  • Some students do not trust that sanctions, once given, will be consistently enforced.
  • The disconnect between some offices, due to differing philosophies and approaches, impacts the student experience in a way that further diminishes trust in the College’s handling of sexual misconduct.
  • Such distrust can lead, as it did in Spring 2019, to accusations of the College’s deliberate indifference to combating sexual misconduct on campus. 

Transparency

  • The Title IX process is seen by students as opaque and lacking transparency.
  • The overall student community, while not involved in a specific case, has a vested interest in the safety of their peers. Our community lacks an opportunity and space to review and discuss the sexual misconduct prevention and response ecosystem.
  • Some students involved in a Title IX case have reported a lack of frequent and clear updates on how the case is progressing and their available resources and options. 
  • While student confidentiality laws allow the sharing of personally identifiable information about a student between College employees when there is a “need to know,” there is not at present a shared interpretation of the standard between Offices. 
  • The Title IX Office and the Healing & Advocacy Collective interpret “need to know” very narrowly, and this has led to misunderstandings on the part of some students who expect that other Offices have knowledge about a case when in fact they may not. 

Communication, Education and Awareness

  • The Title IX policy is dense, complex, confusing, and written in an overly legalistic manner that is difficult to navigate. This can be overwhelming to a person in crisis. 
  • The various offices of the College involved in aspects of responding to acts of sexual misconduct do not always communicate well with each other or share the information necessary for seamless coordination and collaboration.
  • The College lacks a comprehensive orientation-to-graduation education, awareness and prevention strategy.
  • The College lacks an articulated graduation participation policy that differentiates amongst the various stages in which a student can be in the Title IX process.
  • There is ambiguity around eligibility to participate in leadership roles for students in various stages of the Title IX process.
  • Access to resources such as counseling and academic support is important during the Title IX process. While institutional resources for complainants are well established and clearly articulated, such resources for respondents are less well established and articulated.

Cultures/structures

  • There is a general lack of awareness and understanding of the function, purpose and location of the Title IX Office. 
  • The structural location of the Title IX Office within the Social Justice Center is potentially confusing, as community members may not perceive the stance of the Title IX Office as neutral. 
  • The College lacks clear informal resolution options for sexual misconduct cases, which may create a barrier for reporting. 
  • There are opportunities to better articulate the sexual misconduct prevention and response ecosystem with Emerson’s unique campus culture (for example, sexual misconduct education specific to collaborative student work in non-supervised experiences, such as student organizations, co-curriculars, sets, crews, teams, etc.).

Draft Recommendations

(1) Strengthen Cross-Departmental Communication and Collaboration

Based on the findings above that there are sometimes disconnects in trust, communication, approach, interpretation, and philosophy between Offices with a touchpoint in the sexual misconduct prevention and response ecosystem, the PWG recommends creation of a Standing Committee. A Standing Committee will strengthen communication and cross-Office collaboration with an eye to improving the student experience. It is expected that the Standing Committee will meet regularly (a minimum of once per month). We recommend that it be co-chaired by the VP of the Social Justice Center, the VP of Campus Life/Dean of Students, and the VPAA/Provost and include representatives from all stakeholders on campus with a functional touchpoint in the ecosystem (Title IX Coordinator, Deputy Title IX Coordinator and Investigator, Residence Life, Healing & Advocacy, Student Conduct, ECPD, Sanctions Panel Chairs, and General Counsel). Its charge is to:

  • Develop and maintain shared norms, vision and ethos;
  • Identify and train on best practices, involving all parties as a shared exercise to deepen mutual understanding of each other’s roles and pain points;
  • Craft a shared understanding of and protocol for ‘need to know’ and appropriate flows of information between Offices;
  • Investigate and establish record management protocols and systems for improving information flow;
  • Create a commencement participation policy for students in the Title IX process and guidelines on their ability to hold leadership positions in student organizations
  • Develop a strategic plan to expand and unify education and prevention programming, informed by climate surveys and other data and with a coordinated and evolving implementation approach;
  • Conduct an internal, College-wide review every three years to identify ways to strengthen operationalization (i.e. an implementation look back audit); 
  • Distribute an annual report to the College community on Committee foci and data on reports and investigations. Such reporting is crucial for establishing transparency, accountability, trust, and proactively distinguishing between facts and hearsay;
  • Host an open Community Forum each year to ensure that channels of dialogue and response remain open.

Next Steps: Recommendation that the Chairs of the Standing Committee meet with the PWG and the President to be formally charged so that work can commence. Assemble team and develop a strategic planning document to address items above by December 2020. 

(2) Expand and Coordinate Education and Prevention Programming

Create a coordinated, consistent, and comprehensive orientation-to-graduation education, awareness and prevention strategy that will build on existing strengths. It will be oriented to: 

  • Supporting a more forward-facing presence of Title IX on-campus messaging campaigns;
  • Creating Emerson-specific and Emerson-produced programming (i.e. student-directed films or interactive games), after investigating other training models on-campus and elsewhere to find helpful examples.

Virtual options can augment in-person ones; these should be regular, brief, meaningful reminders regarding the need to collectively safeguard the well-being of our campus:

  • Every incoming student should receive training and education by the end of their first semester, with records to support that this goal has been achieved;
  • Higher-level programming should be offered to continuing students such that students receive regular and ongoing education and training throughout their tenure at the College;
  • Educational approaches should be tailored to different stages of the student experience and campus locations;
  • Every student organization should be required to have a yearly Title IX training focused on issues and interactions specific to that organization and the faculty advisor trained on how to serve as a resource and make mandatory reports to the Title IX Coordinator if issues arise.
  • Education and training for all students need to be bolstered by programming for student leaders, faculty, and staff:
  • Require training for faculty advisors and student leaders of organizations and co-curriculars on how to appropriately navigate interpersonal relations within collaborative, unsupervised spaces that make up Emerson’s unique niche. Work with faculty to embed sexual misconduct prevention and awareness into the first-year curriculum.

Next Steps: Recommendation that the Title IX Coordinator prepare a plan to ensure all students incoming during the 2020-2021 academic year receive training on the Title IX policy, as well as sexual misconduct prevention and awareness. The Standing Committee shall work to create a comprehensive training plan for implementation beginning in 2021-2022.

(3) Simplify Title IX Policy and Communication of Resources  

Information about the policy, process and options for support and reporting need to be made more accessible and easier to understand. A revamped communication plan needs to be adopted in order to better educate the community about Emerson’s policies and processes related to sexual misconduct. Streamlined presentation will benefit users, especially those in crisis.

  • Revise language of the policy so that it is universally easier for a user to understand. Utilize the expertise already applied to this effort in past proposed revisions;
  • Create a communication plan that includes a redesigned website, poster campaign, and flow chart that clearly illustrates process and options. A student in crisis should be able to easily access relevant support resources and process steps.

Next Steps: Revise the policy in keeping with new federal regulations and with broad representation from the new Standing Committee. Employ internal and/or external experts to design a new communication plan.

(4) Develop Informal Resolutions for students who opt not to pursue a formal investigation

The Working Group identified a trend across U.S. universities where the majority of reports of sexual misconduct filed do not result in a formal investigation, and Emerson data reflects this national trend. We believe that more information about informal resolution options - provided online for review prior to making contact with the Title IX Office - will encourage more reporting and, we hope, help more students get the assistance or resolution most helpful to them. 

  • The Title IX Coordinator, in collaboration with the Director of Community Standards and Student Conduct, should create options for informal resolution that are currently available to the parties and publish it on the Title IX website, so that the complainant can elect what options they may wish to pursue and so that the respondent, upon notification of which options the complainant is amenable to, can review to see if they wish to agree to participate in that option as well. 
  • Not all of the accommodations, supports, resources, and informal resolution options need to be provided only through the Title IX Office. Other departments at the College, such as Residence Life or Community Standards, can and should be permitted to assist, provided they undergo training on the Title IX policy and are in regular communication with the Title IX Office regarding such activities so that they may be documented. For example, sexual harassment occurring on a residence hall floor should be reported through the Title IX Office, but the parties involved may want the Residence Life staff for that hall to help the students reach a mutually agreeable informal resolution that can then be reinforced by the staff members on site.
  • The Standing Committee should discuss and revise to ensure that these informal resolution options are robust and reflective of the many resources and deep expertise across the campus community, both inside and outside the Title IX Office.
  • The Standing Committee should explore creation of a student ombudsman and other potential mediation mechanisms.

Next Steps: In the immediate term, the Title IX Coordinator, in consultation with resources across campus, should make sure that all options for supports, services, and accommodations - both on and off campus - for students going through the process are consolidated, explained, updated with respect to contact information, and clearly visible on the Title IX website. By January 2021, the Standing Committee should complete its revision of the expanded options.

(5) Realign the Title IX Office posture

As the Working Group met with various stakeholders in the community, we identified an important philosophical difference in the interpretation of the mission of the Title IX Office at the College, which we believe is in need of resolution. 

Title IX as an equity statute:

  • the federal law ensures equitable opportunity to all students, regardless of sex, to participate in the College’s programs and requires that, if an allegation of discrimination or harassment is made, an investigation is conducted to make a determination as to whether such discrimination or harassment occurred. Until the investigation is finished and a decision is made, the College must continue to provide the parties with access to the College's programs (with some exceptions based on individualized risk in a particular situation). Part of providing that access is providing supports, accommodations, and resources to the parties and witnesses as needed. 
  • Once a decision is made, if harassment or discrimination is found to have occurred, the College must work to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects. Meeting that obligation involves consideration not only of the parties in the case, but of the campus culture and the needs of the community at large.
  • To run this process, it is important for the Title IX Office to be neutral in practice, and to be perceived as neutral by the individuals seeking justice through the process. The Title IX Coordinator must be there to make sure the parties (complainants and respondents) have access to the support, resources, and accommodations they need to continue to access the College's programs and activities. The Coordinator must make sure that the investigative process follows the policy, treats the parties fairly, and is conducted in an impartial and unbiased manner. The Title IX Coordinator must be able to answer the questions of both parties and their advisors about the process, as they are not an advocate for either party but instead an advocate for the process itself to be compliant, transparent, and fair.

Title IX as a component of social justice:

  • The Title IX Office is neutral in practice; however, Emerson's Title IX Office is positioned within the Social Justice Center alongside the Healing & Advocacy Collective. The Social Justice Center rightfully takes an advocacy stance, noting that the historical mistreatment of survivors of sexual misconduct requires us to undertake the work now to ensure that victims are treated respectfully and with a trauma-informed perspective.
  • While an advocacy stance is compelling to many of us individually and at a socio-political level, we believe the Title IX Office should be a neutral resource to all community members, no matter their role or position in the process. This belief is informed and supported by the guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education that is currently in effect, as well as the proposed federal regulations.
  • Because of this real or perceived misalignment between the mission of the Social Justice Center and the function of the Title IX Office, the Working Group is concerned that housing the Title IX Office there may create an appearance of partiality that may have consequences for the parties. Will a complainant believe that as a survivor they will be supported, and then feel betrayed if an office within the Social Justice Center ultimately determines after an investigation that no policy violation occurred? Will a respondent, seeking their own justice, believe that the process is biased against them from the start?

The Working Group believes that there should not be a need to ask these questions. Removing the Title IX Office from the Social Justice Center will create the distance necessary to fulfill the neutral role that is expected and which will be emphasized under the final regulations that will be released imminently. It will also avoid such misfounded expectations among the parties and the community with regard to the outcome of each case and reiterate to the community the inherent fairness and impartiality that we expect in the handling of these cases.

Next Steps: The President should consider whether the reporting structure of the Title IX Office best serves its mission and obligations. Once the new regulations are in place, the Standing Committee should determine whether and which additional resources for complainants, respondents, and witnesses are required to be consistent with our value of treating all students with utmost dignity and respect.  

(6) Process Update Standards 

In response to findings about transparency, communication, and trust above, the Working Group recommends a prescribed schedule of regular updates

  • The Title IX Coordinator should ensure that all parties are provided with updates on at least a weekly basis during a formal investigation. The updates may be provided by the investigator(s), the Title IX Coordinator, or the Deputy Title IX Coordinator. The Title IX Coordinator is responsible for keeping data on the frequency of updates provided to each party during each investigation. 
  • The Standing Committee should develop an update standard for all process stages (for example, after submitting a report and during the stage of pre-investigation) and the frequency and provider of updates for all pathways other than a formal investigation (for example, no contact orders, interim measures, informal resolution options).

Next Steps: Data regarding updates provided to each party should be submitted to and reviewed by the Standing Committee on a semesterly basis. The purpose of review will be to assess efficacy and consistency and will focus on timeline data points of updates to each party and not on the content of any particular case.


Until June 5th, 2020,  feedback can be submitted at https://emerson.edu/pwg-feedback.