Title IX working group restarts meetings early after harsh rebuke from some admin, students


Parker Purifoy

Formerly the Title IX office, Emerson’s Office of Equal Opportunity will address issues of discrimination, sexual violence and harassment on campus.

The Title IX working group will continue to meet through the summer after its initial draft of recommended changes to college Title IX policy drew more than 40 public comments that may substantially influence the final report, according to working group officials. 

Three of these comments came from the Title IX Office, Healing and Advocacy Center, and Sylvia Spears, vice president for equity and social justice, who heavily critiqued the working group’s nine-month investigative process and the scope of the report. Their comments, totaling 51 pages, rebuked several of the drafted findings, including the recommendations to remove the Title IX office from the Social Justice Center, create a standing committee, and institute informal resolutions into the Title IX process.  

The responses to the recommendations were released in a SJC newsletter on June 5 and marked the first time members of the college administration publicly criticized the working group.

Their lengthy remarks echo much of what student activists said in May immediately after the group released the drafted report. President of Students Supporting Survivors and former working group member Leah Cedeño openly denounced the group and its report in spring 2020, calling it “fundamentally flawed.”

Created in September 2019, the working group originally did not intend to meet again until the beginning of the 2020 fall semester. But after dozens of community members submitted their comments, the 10-member group chose to resume meeting informally through the summer, Co-chairs Amy Ansell and Jan Roberts-Breslin said. 

“We worked so intensely through the year, and it was desired by some members to begin to talk through [the comments], even though we don’t officially reconvene until the fall,” Ansell said in an interview.

The working group had hoped to hold an in-person forum in the fall for members of the community to discuss the recommendations. However, Ansell and Roberts-Breslin said they are now unsure if they will be able to do so because of social distancing restrictions. 

The co-chairs declined to discuss specific criticisms but repeatedly told The Beacon the community feedback could substantially impact the report and recommendations. 

Roberts-Breslin said she sees their recommendations as procedural and structural in nature, instead of targeted recommendations about specific policies, which is what some student activists called for during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school year.

The draft is likely to change before a final version is sent to President M. Lee Pelton in the fall, the co-chairs confirmed.

“As much time as we put into it, as thorough and thoughtful as the group is, it’s going to take more than that to solve all the issues and answer all the questions,” Roberts-Breslin said. “I don’t think we or anyone else ever thought this working group was going to solve all of the issues that are out there. We were hoping to identify some of the issues and set up a structure to address them on an ongoing basis.”

Pelton has pointed to the working group multiple times in recent weeks as a sign that Emerson is committed to listening to sexual assault survivors, amid a social media movement where dozens of students and alumni have accused some former peers of abuse. 

Pelton formed the working group last fall after someone anonymously posted a list of alleged abusers on the Little Building’s scaffolding. The list appeared the morning after an April 2019 meeting where more than 100 students met to discuss complaints that the college allegedly mishandles cases of sexual misconduct.

Outside participation in the working group

In their comments, the Title IX Office and Spears said they had limited opportunities for input in the working group and felt their level of participation was inadequate. 

Ansell and Roberts-Breslin said the working group met with multiple staff members involved in the Title IX process—including Spears, members of the Title IX and HAC offices, administrators from the Campus Life Office, the Emerson College Police Department, and others—for in-person meetings and then additionally consulted them when needed. Those meetings were intended to help the group learn about the Title IX process and identify its weaknesses.

As the college’s experts on sexual misconduct policy and procedure, The Title IX office said they wished they had been involved further. In their comments, they wrote it was “concerning” that the Title IX Coordinator was left out of the working group.

“Omitting such important, albeit limited, contributions by professionals doing this work for the Emerson community runs the risk of undermining the [working group’s] credibility and eroding any trust the community might have in the [working group] appropriately considering its comments, submitted through the portal or otherwise,” the Title IX office wrote in their response. 

Spears and the Title IX office each participated in hour-long meetings with the group and separately with its legal consultants from Bricker & Eckler, Attorneys at Law. Spears participated in an additional hour-long meeting with the consultants in September, and both Spears and HAC provided the working group with data several times during the year. 

The working group met for around two hours every week throughout the academic year.

Realignment of Title IX Office

Spears also brought up numerous concerns about removing the Title IX office out of her purview in the SJC, a measure that was recommended by the working group in its report. 

She said she expressed these concerns after a meeting in April with Ansell, Roberts-Breslin, and Vice President and Dean of Campus Life James Hoppe where they discussed the possibility of moving the Title IX office into the Campus Life office. If it were moved to the Campus Life office, it would be under Hoppe’s direction. 

Spears wrote a memo to senior administrators three days after the meeting, advocating against the move. She wrote that the proposed relocation would create multiple issues to alleviate concerns of the office’s neutrality. She also said she has never heard concerns from students about the impartiality of the Title IX office.

The Title IX office has been in the SJC since 2014, when external consulting firm Margolis Healy and Associates recommended that the office sit in a place of widespread institutional power where the Title IX coordinator would not have to report to someone with another role in the process. 

The drafted recommendations state that the Title IX office does not appear neutral because it is located within the SJC, which takes an advocacy stance and considers the historical context of systemic patterns of inequity. Removing the Title IX office from the Social Justice Center would remove any chance of perceived bias, the draft states. 

Spears said the SJC was the only such place where the Title IX office could fit.

“I find this perception by students to be somewhat surprising, given that the vast majority of students have no sense of administrative reporting lines and no knowledge of where Title IX reports,” she said in her memo. “There have been one or two occasions when attorneys for responding parties who have done their research have used the placement of Title IX as a basis for questioning whether a fair and consistent process will take place. These comments have been hyperbolic in nature.”

The Title IX office has been located within the Social Justice Center since 2014 after an external group of lawyers examined the college’s Title IX policies and practices. (Media: Stephanie Purifoy)

Spears’ comments echo the criticisms of Cedeño and other student advocates who said they have never heard any concerns from the student body about the Title IX office’s neutrality. 

In an interview, Ansell said the working group never thought the Title IX office wasn’t impartial because of its position in the SJC, but several people had voiced concerns about its perceived neutrality during their investigation. She would not specify who brought up these concerns.  

As a result, the working group debated several different locations within the college infrastructure to relocate the Title IX office.

Spears said that putting Hoppe in charge of the Title IX office would create an immediate conflict of interest because of Hoppe’s role as the appellate officer, who fields requests for appeals in Title IX investigations. It would additionally diminish the office’s authority when dealing with non-student cases, she argued. The sexual misconduct policy applies to all members of the community—faculty, staff, and students.

“A Title IX Coordinator housed in Campus Life may unintentionally send the message to the campus community that Title IX compliance [only] applies to students and that power-based interpersonal violence is a phenomenon that only affects students,” she said. “This proposed relocation may render the Title IX process invisible as a path for redress for faculty, staff, and affiliated third parties.”

The working group did not include a specific recommendation for where the Title IX office should go if it was shifted out of the SJC, partially because of the feedback from Spears, Ansell said. 

“It’s not an easy question, which is why we didn’t say, ‘It should go here or there,’” Roberts-Breslin said in an interview. “It was raised enough, in enough areas of the work, that we thought it needed to be looked at.”

The Title IX office response said this potential for perceived bias has “no basis in fact” and the working group’s draft seems to be “based on a misguided assumption” that their position within the SJC is not in compliance with federal regulations. The office can be committed to eliminating interpersonal violence while also treating all parties fairly, they said. 

“The [working group] bases its call for ‘realigning’ [the Title IX office] on an assertion that the [SJC] works to ‘ensure that victims are treated respectfully and with a trauma-informed perspective,’ as if this is inconsistent with evidence-based best practices for conducting fair, impartial investigations,” the Title IX Office wrote in their comment. 

Informal processes

Another major recommendation the group included in the drafted report was the implementation of informal resolutions that would allow Title IX cases to be handled without formal investigations—potentially by student employees. Those resolutions would be created and published on the college’s website so both parties in a case can choose what they would like to pursue. 

The drafted report states that the majority of sexual misconduct reports at the college do not turn into formal investigations, a trend that permeates institutions of higher education across the country. 

Informal options could involve other departments of the college, like Community Standards or the Office of Housing and Residential Education, who would carry out and facilitate the resolutions, according to the draft.

OHRE staff should be allowed to work with students facing sexual harassment in a residence hall to find a “mutually agreeable” informal resolution, the draft states. 

If implemented, this policy would put student employees in charge of facilitating and enforcing resolutions in some sexual misconduct cases. These staff members would be required to go through Title IX training, but the draft does not specify what this training would look like. 

That recommendation drew strong rebukes from Spears and the HAC, along with the Title IX office who said in their statement that it would not be appropriate for student staff members to have any role in handling or mediating cases of sexual harassment.

“This is not about individuals, it’s about expertise,” Spears said in an interview. “There are talented people in Campus Life who have deep expertise in their chosen field and that may not mean they have deep expertise in Title IX, power-based interpersonal violence, the neurobiology of trauma and how people will react in those moments. . .It’s not as simple as giving them Title IX training and then letting them resolve those matters.”

Standing Committee

The working group wrote multiple times in the drafted report that there are differences in philosophy between the various offices involved in the Title IX process, which causes miscommunication and lack of trust. They did not specify what the differences of philosophy are, the offices involved, or how they impact the Title IX process. 

As a fix, the working group recommended the creation of a standing committee chaired by the vice president of the Social Justice Center, the vice president of Campus Life, and the vice president of Academic Affairs. The permanent committee would also include representatives from different departments that have a place in the Title IX process, like the HAC, Student Conduct, ECPD, General Counsel, chairs of the Sanctions Panel, and OHRE, along with staff from the Title IX office.

“The Standing Committee will strengthen communication and cross-office collaboration with an eye to improving student experience,” the report states. 

Vice President for Equity and Social Justice Sylvia Spears heavily criticized multiple aspects of the drafted report in her public comments (Media: Stephanie Purifoy)

In her comment, Spears said issues of communication and differing philosophy—which are both identified in the draft report—will not be solved by the creation of the standing committee, even though it may be symbolically important. 

“At the heart of this dilemma is not where individuals in [the Title IX Office], [HAC], or the [SJC] stand philosophically,” she said. “Rather, this is a question of where the college stands, and that question can only be answered by the Emerson Community through a deep and somewhat painful process of truth and reconciliation.”

“Need to Know” statements

Spears, the Title IX Office, and HAC all devoted a significant portion of their feedback to address remarks made in the drafted report about “need to know,” which is the standard that determines who has access to information about Title IX cases and reports of sexual misconduct. 

The standard exists because of a federal law, FERPA, which prohibits college administrators from sharing educational records unless someone has a legitimate “need to know” in order to do their jobs. 

The drafted report says that the Title IX office and HAC have narrow interpretations of “need to know” leading to misunderstandings from students who expect other offices to have information about their case when they do not. They recommended that the proposed standing committee develop a protocol for the sharing of information. 

Ansell and Roberts-Breslin said this concern was raised by multiple staff members they met with during the investigation but did not specify who the staff members were. 

Spears said she has never experienced an instance where students wished staff members knew more about their case. 

HAC operates as a confidential resource which is regulated by the state of Massachusetts and, according to Spears’ response, would require a subpoena to divulge information about specific clients in their care. 

The Title IX office operates differently, because they have to communicate basic information to other offices in order to implement accommodations on behalf of a member of the community. Accommodations could include a stay-away order, a no-contact order, or removing a specific student from a class or workplace on campus. 

In order to put an accommodation in place, the Title IX Coordinator has to contact the staff member who would be able to enact the appropriate measures. For example, if a complainant in a sexual misconduct case would like the respondent removed from their class, the Title IX Coordinator would have to contact the Academic Affairs office.  

It should only take a recommendation from the Title IX Coordinator for the corresponding administrator to put the accommodation in place, Spears said in her feedback. The Title IX office and HAC echoed this sentiment in their comments. 

“From a trauma-informed lens, people who have experienced power-based violence should be allowed to make their own decisions and have those decisions respected by institutions,” the HAC said in their statement. “They have already experienced someone using power and control over them through power-based violence. They do not need the institution asserting power and control over them by making decisions for them and sharing their private information about their experiences of harm.”

Many of the drafted recommendations are focused around increased communication and collaboration among offices involved in the Title IX process. 

Spears said that while increased communication and collaboration are positive steps, they are not enough to create a climate that is free of sexual misconduct and other instances of power-based interpersonal violence. Creating that kind of environment would require members of the college administration to sit down and talk with students “as their equal,” she said. 

“Administrators have to be humble and learn from students, because students are the folks who are in spaces that we’re not in,” she said in an interview. “I see students, in all kinds of ways, being willing to step into those conversations. For me, it’s a question of whether all of us who sit in high-up positions are willing to listen more than we talk and to accept the experiences of students, whoever they may be.”