Drawing the Line on Sexual Misconduct

A new policy helps make the Tufts campus even safer, and a task force will monitor compliance
October 10, 2013

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If your wallet is stolen, you call the police. But if someone posts a revealing image of you on the Internet or makes unwanted sexual advances on campus, you might hesitate to file a complaint.

You shouldn’t, though. Under the university’s new Sexual Misconduct/Sexual Assault Policy, these are two examples of sexual misconduct and clear violations that require prompt administrative response. In fact, Tufts is one of just a few colleges and universities whose policy on sexual misconduct extends to sexual exploitation, which includes photographing or taping sexual activity, voyeurism and inducing intoxication for the purpose of sexual activity without someone’s consent, says Jill Zellmer, director of Tufts Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO).

The policy, which was published this summer, provides clear and expanded definitions of behavior that violates Tufts’ rules and identifies trained resources that can provide needed support. “Tufts had a strong sexual assault policy that had evolved over the years, but broadening the policy to sexual misconduct means we now have five new categories that correspond to what we know is making campuses unsafe,” says Zellmer. In addition to sexual exploitation, the policy includes sexual harassment, sex or gender discrimination, stalking and relationship violence.

Jill Zellmer. Photo: Alonso Nichols“Combined, these comprehensive definitions put us ahead of the curve in terms of where many other colleges and universities are right now,” says Zellmer, who credits input from Tufts students and colleagues, consultations with experts in the field and a review of best practices from other colleges and universities for the policy’s high standards.

This fall, President Anthony Monaco convened a task force on sexual misconduct to ensure that all aspects of the new policy are well monitored. The group will review the adjudication process for sexual misconduct as well as the policy itself, to ensure they are constantly improved. “We want to ensure that we address this important issue effectively with strong policies and procedures, meaningful education and training and the support our community needs. My hope is that we can become a model for others to follow,” says Monaco. The task force is comprised of administrators, faculty and students from all three campuses.

Michelle Bowdler, senior director of Health and Wellness, works collaboratively with Zellmer in her department’s role focused on prevention, education, response and care for survivors. Bowdler is also involved with setting agendas and goals for the new the task force.

“Jill coming in and setting up the Office of Equal Opportunity to really take the lead in creating and enforcing policy was a huge step forward for us,” she says. “I hope students understand what a tremendous addition to resources for them this change represents.” Still, she emphasizes that the work is far from over, because what makes a campus safer is not just policy; it’s “training so individuals trying to enforce policies really understand the issue, it’s education across the community, it’s proper response at all levels of the university.”   

Tufts has also increased its efforts to prevent sexual misconduct, including launching a new online course called Haven to increase student awareness of what constitutes sexual assault. Next year the course will be required for all incoming undergraduates.

Michelle BowdlerIn addition, there have been improvements in ways to report sexual misconduct. For instance, it is now possible to confidentially report an incident through an online tool at Tufts’ Office of Equal Opportunity website. Tufts’ new policy itself is readily available at the OEO site, too, as is an easily accessible list of resources for reporting an incident or for seeking support. “It seems counterintuitive, but the more cases that are reported, the better we know our policy and response are working, because students are not afraid to get help,” Zellmer says.

Finally, Zellmer and Bowdler have been working together to improve how incidents are handled by Tufts’ administration. The adjudication process now consists of one-on-one fact-finding interviews with those involved, which are conducted by Tufts’ neutral Title IX investigator from the OEO, Sonia Jurado, or by an investigator from outside the university retained by OEO. A panel of three trained administrators—who are approved by both parties involved and have no prior knowledge of either individual—reviews the report from the investigator. The panelists determine if university policy has been violated and if so, what disciplinary action is required. Each party can have a support person present during all interviews and meetings.

This best-practice approach, monitored by OEO, replaces the former adjudication process in which the complaining party and the responding party were able to question one another in a hearing. Bowdler points out that the former adjudication process discouraged many victims from reporting.

Tufts has been reassessing and rewriting its sexual assault policy since 2008, says Bowdler, who notes that the university has gone far beyond Title IX requirements in this area. Title IX mandates that institutions receiving federal funding ensure unimpeded access not just to athletics but to the full educational experience.

“This includes having a comprehensive and effective approach to dealing with sexual misconduct and assault,” says Zellmer. “We have looked at policies among our peers, and taken the best of the best, and added some definitions and processes that now have them looking to us as a model.”

Recently,  Zellmer and Bowdler were asked to speak about Title IX and the importance of community partnerships at statewide conferences titled “Campus Response to Sexual Violence and Assault,” convened by the Governor’s Council.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.