• December 21, 2014

Revived Title IX Agreement With Tufts Signals Stricter Enforcement

The announcement on Friday that Tufts University and the U.S. Department of Education had resolved an impasse over compliance with Title IX suggests a shift toward tougher enforcement of the federal gender-equity law.

After a four-year investigation of the university’s response to reports of sexual assault, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights determined in April that Tufts had failed to comply with the law by, among other violations, not resolving reports promptly and equitably and not adequately protecting alleged victims during the process. Campus policies, the department said, still "do not comport with the applicable Title IX requirements."

In an unusual development, Tufts initially accepted but then revoked a "resolution agreement" to change its policies, rejecting the accompanying finding that it had violated—and, in fact, was still in violation of—Title IX. "We could not, in good faith, allow our community to believe that we were not in compliance with such an important law," the university said in a statement.

Campus leaders vowed to negotiate with the Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, which had pledged to enforce the agreement or begin the process of terminating federal funds to Tufts, the ultimate penalty for violations of Title IX.

Last week the president of Tufts, Anthony P. Monaco, met in Washington with Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. "We had a productive conversation which clarified OCR’s concerns with Tufts’ Title IX compliance," Mr. Monaco said in a written statement. "We are now engaged in discussions to address them."

Tufts has re-signed the agreement, a spokeswoman for the university confirmed, and it has already submitted some proposed policy changes to the department.

"The safety of each member of the Tufts community and Tufts’ ongoing compliance with Title IX," Mr. Monaco said in his public statement, "continue to be among my highest priorities as president."

Federal officials welcomed the cooperation. "I congratulate Tufts University for taking swift action to cure its breach of its April 17 agreement with OCR," Ms. Lhamon said in a statement, "and I look forward to working with President Monaco and the university community to ensure the safety of all students on campus."

Heightened Federal Scrutiny

The Education Department’s strict stance may mark a new era of Title IX enforcement.

The public standoff with Tufts became known on the same day that the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault released a set of stringent guidelines for colleges. The Office for Civil Rights simultaneously issued a 52-point Q&A on Title IX compliance, and the task force unveiled a website, NotAlone.gov, that offers victims a "road map" to file complaints against colleges that mishandle their reports.

As a result of such complaints or of OCR’s own "compliance reviews," 55 colleges are now under investigation for possible violations of Title IX involving alleged sexual harassment or assault, federal officials announced this month. Intended to prevent a hostile environment, the law requires colleges to look into and resolve students’ reports, whether or not the police are involved.

The number of complaints against colleges involving alleged sexual violence has tripled since the office began tracking them, from 11 in the 2009 fiscal year to 33 in just the first half of 2014, according to a Chronicle analysis.

In the past, many investigations resulted in resolution agreements—like the one with Tufts—to change campus policies, but without an official declaration of noncompliance. In 2012, for instance, a settlement between the department and Yale University criticized some of Yale’s previous policies but praised its progress toward a safer, more supportive environment for students.

Some recent settlements have carried sharper rebukes and more-rigid requirements. Last year, after an investigation of the University of Montana at Missoula over reports of sexual assault by football players, the Departments of Education and Justice denounced the university’s handling of the issue, recognizing recent progress but requiring much more. And on Friday the Education Department settled an investigation of the Virginia Military Institute, finding that it had "engaged in sex discrimination in violation of Title IX" and demanding corrective action.

In such cases, resolution agreements enumerate many requirements of the institution, sometimes dozens. Hire a consultant on equity issues, for example. Develop a confidential tracking system for reports of sexual misconduct. Strengthen communication with law-enforcement partners.

Lucy France, general counsel at Montana, made a spreadsheet to track each requirement at her institution.

Protests and Deadlines

Under the agreement with Tufts—now back in effect—the university must, among other things, provide regular training for all students and employees on their rights and responsibilities under Title IX; document all reports of sexual misconduct with a 13-point checklist; submit all proposed revisions in policies, procedures, outreach, and training for federal review; conduct annual assessments of the campus climate; and pay monetary compensation to the student who filed the complaint that prompted the investigation, in 2010.

When Tufts revoked the agreement, students and supporters protested on the campus, near Boston. They formed a ring outside the university’s main administration building, chanting "Re-sign or resign, we need our Title IX." As some negotiated with administrators, others took to Twitter.

Nationally, a movement of self-identified survivors of sexual assault on campuses has kept the pressure on colleges, helping students file complaints and urging the federal government to step up enforcement of Title IX. The Office for Civil Rights should punish colleges for violations of the law, activists say, not just help them comply with it.

Recent settlements impose close monitoring and set assertive timetables. Tufts faces a series of deadlines for amending policies and prevention resources, for example; documenting training sessions; and conducting climate surveys: June 1, June 30, July 31, August 30, October 31, and beyond.

"We will keep the community informed of our ongoing efforts to ensure a campus culture that is safe, respectful, and supportive of every individual," Mr. Monaco said in his statement. Both students and federal officials intend to hold him accountable.

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