Working Group Final Report

CONTENT WARNING: Title IX and Sexual Misconduct

To: President Lee Pelton
From: Presidential Working Group
Re: Final Recommendations
Date: December 2020


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

Formation of the Presidential Working Group in Early September

Presidential Working Group (PWG) 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.

During AY2019-2020, our process entailed meeting weekly, supported by outside experts in the Title IX field and in ongoing 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 has made, and the alternative yet compliant choices that might 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 in a fictional case gave Working Group members the opportunity to discuss how assumptions based on limited information at various stages inform the range of choices faced by various Offices and how other institutions navigate such 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.

The first draft was shared with the community in May 2020. The PWG discussed and considered the feedback we received throughout the summer and Fall 2020 semester. As we neared completion of our revised recommendations, we met again with major stakeholders in the sexual misconduct process at Emerson. We reviewed the new Power-Based Interpersonal Violence (PBIV) Policy released by the newly renamed Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX in response to new federal regulations released during the summer of 2020.

We shared the second draft with the community to invite additional feedback in advance of an open Community Forum, held on December 4, 2020. The PWG met and considered the feedback shared during the online comment period and Community Forum. Our final recommendations to the President will be detailed here.

Values that Guided Our Work

The PWG wishes to extend its appreciation and respect to members of the Title IX Team and those who support the PBIV process who have demonstrated a passion and commitment to the campus’ safety and well-being. We acknowledge that this work is complex, challenging, difficult and nuanced.

The PWG approached its work by balancing best practices in PBIV 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.”

As noted above, new federal regulations were released from the Department of Education during the summer of 2020 that impacted the Title IX requirements for institutions of higher education. The new regulations 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 PWG 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 Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX 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 Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX .
  • The structural location of the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX within the Social Justice Center is potentially confusing, as community members may not perceive the stance of the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX 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.).

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 – in addition to the Title IX Team as defined by the PBIV Policy (2020) - 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). 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 PBIV 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.

The PWG recommends the formation of a Standing Committee that has the following:

  1. Membership that is comprised of the Title IX Team and Title IX Liaisons, as listed in Appendix D of the PBIV Policy, with the addition of the Healing & Advocacy Collective and consultation with the General Counsel as needed.
  2. A requirement to meet regularly (a minimum of once per month). Currently, the PBIV Policy states that the Title IX Team will “meet periodically” at the request of the Title IX Coordinator. In addition to recommending that the Standing Committee meet at least once per month, we suggest that at one of these meetings each semester, the Vice-Presidents of Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and the Social Justice Center be invited to attend with the specific role of reviewing what has been achieved and what remains.
  3. Breadth of Charge: The goal of the recommendation to create a Standing Committee is to build non-case specific and inter-departmental operationalization of the Policy in order to address the deficit in trust identified in the PWG Key Findings.

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 Title IX and PBIV 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; o    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 and PBIV 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.
  • Bolstering education and training for all students – undergraduate and graduate - with programming for student leaders, faculty, and staff:
    • Require training for student leaders of organizations and co-curriculars and their faculty and staff advisors 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.

The PWG discussed how this recommendation is affected by the new Policy and its section 1B on Primary Prevention Strategies and section 1C on the Role of the Title IX Coordinator. It is noted that both the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX and the Healing & Advocacy Collective hosted hour-long and sequential online (live and synchronous) training sessions (40 and 60 sessions respectively) for incoming undergraduate and graduate students, in both flex and online modalities. These sessions, along with the webinar hosted by the Social Justice Center on the new Policy, exemplify the sort of forward-facing presence that the PWG thinks is beneficial. It remains incumbent upon the College to not only offer the education and training sessions but also to ensure that each student attends and completes a foundational session by the end of their first semester. Our recommendation to develop and post on the website a comprehensive training plan and higher-level programming – regular and ongoing and tailored to different constituencies (i.e. student organizations) and campus locales - still stands. Data on completion rates should be compiled and leveraged to increase those rates (such as tying completion of a foundational program to campus move-in and/or a zero-credit course on the degree audit in order to graduate).

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.

It is noted that revision of the PBIV Policy (2020) was done with broad community participation. Those with primary responsibility for drafting the new Policy under a strict timeline stated that, while the attempt was made for the Policy to be briefer and more accessible to a lay audience, it is still as long (in fact longer) than the previous Policy and dense but that this was necessary due to the legalistic and process-oriented nature of the document. In addition to a more readable layout, definitions of policy terms were included in an effort to make the Policy less overwhelming and more user-friendly. The Title IX Coordinator and Deputy Title IX Coordinator are developing flowcharts/visual aids to accompany the new PBIV Policy, covering: the intake process/overview; resources (including confidential resources); supportive measures; informal resolution options; College regulated processes for students; Title IX regulated process for students; College-regulated process for employees; appeals process for students; and appeals process for employees. Completion and posting of such flowcharts/visual aids is an essential component of the PWG recommendation to develop a sustainable communication plan geared toward increased clarity and visibility for the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX.

4. Develop Informal Resolutions for Students Who Opt Not to Pursue a Formal Investigation

The PWG identified a trend across U.S. universities wherein the majority of reports of sexual misconduct filed do not result in a formal investigation, and Emerson data reflects this national trend.

  • Section XIC: Informal Resolution Process of the PBIV Policy (2020) lists three options for informal resolution. The PWG recommends that the Standing Committee craft an expanded menu of options for informal resolution beyond the three outlined in the new Policy. While a written report is required to be submitted to the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX even in cases when an informal resolution is desired, if this pathway is pursued the PWG believes that members of the Title IX Team and other Offices outside the Social Justice Center – including a potential new Ombuds position - could be more involved as partners in the resolution or implementation stage so as to maximize the institutional capacity to provide wrap-around care for students. The PWG recommends that the Title IX Coordinator provide parties with informal resolution options, utilizing the expertise, experience and staff from departments outside the Social Justice Center.
  • The PWG believes that it is in the best interest of students to allow options for other staff and Offices to be involved even while the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX exists as the central gateway and provided that there is appropriate training in trauma-informed practices, no conflict of interest, and that a system of records- and information-sharing is in place.
  • 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 Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX.

5. Consider the Placement of the Access, Equity, and Title IX Function

As the Working Group met with various stakeholders in the community, we identified the possibility of misperception on the part of community members and external parties examining our organizational structure.

  • Title IX is an equity statute. We believe the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX exists as 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.
  • The Social Justice Center, however, 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 survivors are treated respectfully and with a trauma-informed perspective.
  • While the PWG acknowledges that claims of bias on both sides are prevalent among Title IX cases, the PWG is concerned that the current placement of the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX could create an appearance of partiality.

At this time, the PWG understands that it is generally preferred to keep the reporting structure as it currently exists. However, because of the possibility of a perceived misalignment between the mission of the Social Justice Center and the function of the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX, there may be a time in future, perhaps as the College evolves and organizational units shift, to consider an alternative reporting structure. The new regulations have a particular emphasis on avoiding any real or perceived bias, which is of course an important value at the College already. Accordingly, everyone involved in the process of addressing PBIV reports should redouble efforts to demonstrate access and equality as we move ahead.

6.  Establish Ongoing PBIV Process Update Standards

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

  • Student-generated emails should be responded to generally within one business day. For Title IX Office generated communication, it is recommended that at the initial intake meeting, when informing a student about the PBIV process, a representative of the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX share with the student options for receiving updates about the case and continue to give students the choice about how and how often they will receive notifications. In order to maintain a person-centered approach and yet retain a standard of institutional accountability, students should be offered a choice to receive weekly updates or updates only when there is new information about their case or only when action is required. Students can change their update preference at any time by notifying the Office of Access, Equity, & Title IX.
  • 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).


Respectfully submitted,

Amy Ansell and Jan Roberts-Breslin, Co-chairs

Lindsey Beck, Sharon Duffy, John Craig Freeman, Seth Grue, Audra Kenny, Brenna McCormick, Paul Mihailidis

Student Members (2019–2020) Raz Moayed, Kaitlyn Bryson, Amber Jin Yang