Mar 08, 2018

UT Grapples with How to Improve Its Process for Reporting Sexual Harassment

Reporting Texas

Amid a growing national debate over sexual harassment, the University of Texas at Austin is grappling with how best to handle reports of such misconduct on campus.

In recent months, the university has changed some policies and expanded the ways students, faculty and employees can report such incidents, based in part on results of a survey of students about their experiences with sexual harassment or assault.

But the university’s size and structure — more than 50,000 students and thousands more faculty and staff members in dozens of departments – can hamper its ability to offer needed support, students and faculty members say.  Add to that a myriad of services available to students and employees, and the process can seem frustrating.

“I think the administration wants to help,” said Samantha Fuchs, the legislative director for UT’s Graduate Student Association. “It thinks it can deal with things in the departments, but right now that can be really daunting, especially if the department is small.”

Incidents often are first reported to the department where it occurred, Fuchs said.

 “Right now, there’s a number of different offices, there’s all these different processes,” she said. “And it’s very difficult to understand how to approach those.”

UT employees face a similar situation.

“There’s a lot of resources available for faculty,” said Mary Steinhardt, the university’s faculty ombuds and a professor in UT’s College of Education. Although the university offers a wide range of services for those who are sexually harrassed, Steinhardt acknowledged that navigating the resources can be complicated.

UT has ombuds for students and staff. Ombuds work confidentially with students and employees as neutral parties to provide information on available resources for any university-related conflicts or grievances, including issues covered under Title IX, a federal law that bans sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal money.

Faculty members wondering how to handle student concerns also approach the Office of Student Ombuds, director Kouang Chan said.

“Sometimes faculty is asking general questions because they don’t know what the process is,” he said.

In the spring of 2017, UT-Austin conducted a Cultivating Learning and Safe Environments survey to assess the prevalence of sexual misconduct and violence against students. The results of the CLASE survey spurred UT President Gregory Fenves to call for immediate action. Forty-two percent of over 7,600 participants, including undergraduate and graduate students, reported experiencing sexual harassment by a student, and a third indicated they had been harassed by faculty or staff. Eighteen percent reported they had experienced unwanted sexual touching.

The report said sexual harassment includes behaviors such as “unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, and gender harassment.”

Changes are getting underway at programs, organizations and departments across campus to improve procedures for reporting incidents, implement staff training and enhance prevention efforts.

One element on the immediate action list created after the survey was to increase awareness of the university Title IX Office, which investigates reports of employee or student sexual discrimination and misconduct. Some students said they didn’t know the office existed or what its purpose is.

A video posted within the last year on the Title IX office website features a statement by Fenves followed by representatives from departments or organizations that can help, including the UT Police Department and student groups. The video, aimed at students, faculty and staff, mentions filing a formal complaint to the Title IX office, along with making a police report, using informal reporting options and seeking mental health and counseling services. But the video lacks a clear explanation of how formal and informal processes work.

As explained by the Title IX Office, if a student files a formal report of an incident involving  another student, the report goes to Title IX investigators in the Office of the Dean of Students. Complaints reported by or regarding faculty or staff go to the Office for Inclusion and Equity, where they are handled by Title IX investigators there.

Amid the national #MeToo movement, with a growing number of women describing their experiences with sexual harassment and violence, and the findings of the CLASE survey, UT’s Title IX Office said in a statement that it’s not changing how UT addresses sexual assault and harassment reports on campus.

Instead, the Title IX Office acknowledged the #MeToo movement for opening a dialogue about such incidents.

“We have seen an increase in reporting of Title IX misconduct behaviors over the past couple of years, which tells us that our efforts are working,” said the statement, which was sent through the Office of the President and University Communications.

According to data the university provided, student complaints of harassment rose from 69 in the 2012-13 school year to 432 in the 2016-17 school year. There were 134 complaints submitted in the first part of the 2017-18 school year.

Yulanda McCarty-Harris, director of the Office for Inclusion and Equity, said her staff follows procedures based on UT’s 2015 sexual harassment policy. McCarty-Harris said she’s seeing more people feeling empowered to report incidents as an outgrowth of what’s happening nationally.

“A lot of people that have been here for 20 years don’t know about the office until they need it,” McCarty-Harris said.

During UT’s 2016-17 academic year, OIE received 44 Title IX complaints – 27 more than the previous year, according to data the office provided. Nine of the 44 cases were under investigation or unresolved as of mid-December.

Another nine were resolved through an informal complaint process, in which the university uses conflict resolution techniques to resolve an allegation. There is no investigation and no determination whether university policies were violated. The informal method is generally more “expeditious” the university said.

“If it involves sexual violence in any way, we don’t informally resolve those issues,” McCarty-Harris said.

Over the last year, Chan said, around six students, both complainants and respondents, have sought guidance from the Student Ombuds Office on how to prepare for Title IX investigations.

Student and faculty ombuds undergo Title IX training yearly. As part of the CLASE immediate actions agenda, faculty, students and staff members can discuss complaints on a confidential basis with the ombuds offices. The ombuds can help them decide whether or not they want to make a formal complaint and explain the resources available to them.

Jennifer Ebbeler, a professor in the Department of Classics, has been at UT for 15 years. In that time, she noted that UT has created more ways for reporting harassment or assault, without going through the department where the incident occurred, especially since the Title IX Office opened. UT hired its first Title IX investigator in 2006.

Ebbeler said she’s required to report incidents, a policy she encountered in course materials while teaching a pedagogy class to other instructors, where the topic of campus sexual harassment was reviewed.

Ebbeler said that at the start of the 2017 fall semester, she received an email from Fenves’ office outlining the university’s updated official policy on consensual relationships, which defined unacceptable behavior. Prohibited consensual relationships include those between employees and those they teach, coach, manage, evaluate or otherwise supervise, including undergraduate and graduate students, student athletes and other employees.

UT had followed a policy adopted in 2001 until the 2017 update, in which “some major changes were made,” said Betty Brooks, deputy compliance officer at University Compliance Services. Language in the latest version shifted from “the university strongly discourages” certain consensual relationships” to “the policy prohibits” them.

For Ebbeler, receiving word of the policy was a surprise. “It’s appalling it took this long, to be honest,” she said.

Ebbeler said she’s hopeful that changes resulting from the CLASE report will have teeth, but that change will be difficult because attitudes are ingrained.

Since the CLASE study, the Title IX Office states it has been increasing the ways people can report harassment or sexual assault in academic departments, identifying a Title IX deputy in UT’s Graduate School and creating a publicly accessible impact report.

One of the Graduate Student Alliance’s goals in the current semester is to compel the university to streamline and clarify the reporting process for claims, Fuchs said. It’s is an issue she said she hears about regularly from other students.

In the latest effort at communicating university policy, on Jan 30, Breall Baccus, Title IX confidential advocate and prevention coordinator at UCS, sent a mass email to students that outlines the university’s definitions of sexual discrimination, sexual assault, sexual harassment and interpersonal violence. Students, employees, campus visitors and contractors who wish to report an incident are directed to contact one of four listed Title IX representatives, and the email provided links for anonymous reporting.

Citing Title IX, the email also details university employees’ responsibility to “promptly” report incidents to UT’s Title IX coordinator.

Separately, the university is reviewing its policy on whether to make public announcements about sexual misconduct cases that led to resignations or firings. According to a Dec, 30 story in the Austin American-Statesman, two faculty members resigned, one in 2014 and one in 2016, after accusations of sexual misconduct. In one case, the university paid the woman $325,000 to settle her claims against the man, who was her boss. The other case involved the faculty member and a student.

There was no public disclosure of either case. A UT spokesman told the Statesman that the university will review that practice.