Vice President Joe Biden reveals recommendations from a task force appointed by President Obama to address sexual assault on campuses. / AP
Tufts University president Tony Monaco said Tuesday that the school is trying to comply with Title IX in its handling of sexual assaults and does not want to risk losing federal funding as he called the decision to back out of a voluntary resolution agreement with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights a "misunderstanding."
But OCR reiterated its finding of noncompliance by the school as student activists signed a petition asking the university to re-enter the agreement to comply with the law. If Tufts does not enter into an agreement with OCR, it could lose federal funding.
That consequence is far off, says Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators.
"(In effect), Tufts general counsel said, 'I don't want the message to go out that this campus is not in compliance with the law. We worked very hard to be,' " Sokolow said, "so I think it's a matter of principal for them."
The disagreement between the school and OCR came to light Monday as OCR released its letter of finding that Tufts to be out of compliance with Title IX, a 1972 law under which sexual harassment and violence are considered forms of discrimination. The department announced that it had been notified that the school's general counsel was "revoking" her signature on a resolution agreement signed April 17.
Schools that are investigated by OCR typically enter into these agreements, which often require policy changes, training, additional staffing and monitoring to help the school get into compliance. In the past decade, no school has had federal lost federal funding for noncompliance.
OCR found Tufts to be out of compliance with Title IX by failing to "respond in a prompt and equitable manner to complaints, reports, and other incidents of sexual harassment/violence of which it had notice." It also found current policies to be out of compliance, an allegation the school disputes.
At issue, says Monaco, is a disconnect between OCR's regional office in Boston and national office in Washington D.C. He said Tufts administrators were under the impression from the regional OCR staff that Tufts would be found noncompliant in previous cases they had examined but that recent changes to school policies would have brought it into compliance.
OCR refutes that.
"The agreement hasn't changed since Tufts officials signed it on April 17 with full knowledge of the terms," said Dorie Nolt, Education Department press secretary.
Monaco said school officials felt they had to revoke the agreement to discuss current compliance issues.
"There are things that they've asked us to do that we are doing," he said. "We just don't understand the process that OCR put us through with a change coming out of left field at the very end. We just want a chance to sit down with them and sign a new agreement."
STUDENTS SPEAK OUT
That Tufts was found to be out of compliance currently should not come as a surprise says junior John Kelly, who became a vocal advocate for survivors on campus and nationally after he says he was sexually assaulted.
OCR's letter notes a number of issues with current policy, including that interim measures such as housing changes will be provided for victims or that restrictions on the ability of students to discuss the investigation and proceedings with others are inappropriate.
Kelly says the school has further issue with the length of time it takes to conduct investigations. Guidance from OCR in 2011 states that an investigation should typically take 60 days. Recent cases have taken 180-210 days, Kelly said.
OCR found that in eight cases it examined from 2011-13, the typical investigation took four months and one took as long as eight.
"Any claim that it's a surprise that we're out of compliance, to me, shows a lack of foresight or a lack of self awareness on the part of any administrator who would claim that," said Kelly. "That's a bullheaded claim by our president to say they couldn't see this coming."
Kelly, who is co-chair of a working group Monaco started in the fall to address the issue, said Tufts has made many positive policy changes in recent years. But the school still has problems, he said, and administrators are unaware of a changing national climate regarding campus sexual assaults.
Kelly was at the White House on Tuesday as Vice President Biden revealed recommendations from a task force appointed by President Obama to address sexual assault on campuses.
It's part of increased enforcement by the federal government as OCR has been conducting more investigations in recent years. As of April 16, it had 53 pending investigations against colleges and universities for their handling of sexual assaults.
That change is one Wagatwe Wanjuki has seen she reported to Tufts in 2008 that she had been sexually assaulted. She started a blog, "Rape at Tufts University," as she pushed for change on campus. The sexual assault policy was two sentences and a list of phone numbers, then, she said.
"I feel like it's a reflection of how out of touch Tufts' administration is," says Wanjuki. "It's a reflection of how they've been able to get away with Title IX violations for so long.
"While Tufts may not be on the side of survivors, the federal government is."
As of late Tuesday evening, nearly 800 people had signed a change.org petition for Tufts to re-sign the resolution agreement.
START OF INVESTIGATION
OCR's investigation of Tufts began in 2011 after it received a complaint from a student who said she was sexually assaulted in January 2010 by her then-boyfriend. She filed a written complaint six months later, and an investigation was not completed until June 2011.
During the intervening 18 months, Tufts failed to provide the student with appropriate interim measures, OCR found.
The school was not equitable in its investigation, according to OCR, allowing information on the student's medical history to be included even after the accused obtained it by misrepresenting himself as a medical student.
The student also complained of harassment after reporting the alleged assault, and Tufts' failure to respond to that subjected her to a sexually hostile environment, OCR found.
The woman took summer courses at her own personal expense in order to graduate a year early. The resolution agreement Tufts initially signed allowed for monetary compensation to be provided to her.
Monaco said Tufts is trying to work with OCR to come to an agreement and continue its process of improving policies and helping to support victims.
If the school can't reach a resolution agreement, OCR could pursue other enforcement action to refer the case to the Department of Justice or revoke federal funding.
"It certainly doesn't come off as sensitive to the victims that are involved in the process," said Sokolow. "Whatever bad message has been sent about Tufts has probably been sent already by letter of finding."
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Read the original story: Tufts University disputes feds' noncompliance claim