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US, Tufts University at odds on handling sexual assaults

A stairway to the Sophia Gordon Residence Hall on the Tufts University campus.

John Bohn / Globe Staff/File 2007

A stairway to the Sophia Gordon Residence Hall on the Tufts University campus.

The US Department of Education found Monday that Tufts University is not complying with federal rules governing how colleges address sexual assault and said the university needs to do more “to ensure the safety of more than 10,000 students” at the school.

The action, stemming from a 2010 complaint from a woman about Tufts’ handling of her sexual assault allegations, could result in the university losing its federal funding if it does not reach an agreement with the education department’s Office for Civil Rights.

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Tufts signed an agreement with the government earlier this month, pledging to take a long list of steps in improving their policies, as well as providing monetary compensation to the student. But the university backed out of the agreement, Tufts officials said, when told they were being found in violation of Title IX, which mandates gender equity in campus life.

The university adamantly denies violating Title IX, and said it remains committed to the improvements it agreed to earlier.

“We have worked hard in recent years to improve how we respond to complaints of sexual misconduct, investigate them, and impose appropriate penalties while respecting the rights of all parties,” Tufts president Anthony P. Monaco wrote in a letter to the campus Monday. “I regret if we have not always met the needs of our community. We must commit to doing better, now and in the future.”

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The dispute between Tufts and the Department of Education is being watched closely by college administrators around the country as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has boiled over in the past two years, with victims and advocates rallying against what they describe as inaction by many universities. The Department of Education is investigating dozens of schools and initiated an investigation of Harvard University last Thursday after a group of students filed a complaint asserting that Harvard has created a hostile environment for sexual assault victims.

Tufts’ refusal to go along with the Office for Civil Rights may be the beginning of a backlash from universities against what some see as excessive government intervention. A top official at one of the most prominent higher education organizations described Tufts Monday as being brave enough to do what many schools would like to in opposing a finding by the government agency.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, said many colleges believe that the Office for Civil Rights often fails to negotiate in good faith, with Washington officials frequently vetoing agreements hammered out by regional government lawyers.

He saw the action against Tufts as posturing prior to a White House event planned for Tuesday, when the findings of a task force on sexual assault are expected to be released.

“They are very anxious to be seen as taking a very tough and aggressive stance,” he said. “I think frankly they were probably looking for somebody to make an example of, and Tufts just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Hartle added that universities are eager to work on the sexual assault problem and said that it has been the topic he has discussed most with college presidents in the past year.

The unnamed Tufts undergraduate filed the complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in September 2010, saying that the school had discriminated against her on the basis of gender in how it responded to her report that she was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend at that time. She also said the university retaliated against her by threatening to remove her from a selective leadership program if she refused to attend weekly seminars with her alleged attacker, according to a letter the Office for Civil Rights sent Monaco Monday.

Ultimately, in June 2011, Tufts found there was insufficient evidence to sustain her allegations. She was put on probation after a finding that she had fabricated a letter about her medical conditions and had not been truthful with university officials, according to the Office for Civil Rights.

The accused student was also put on probation for having misrepresented himself as a Tufts medical student to obtain confidential medical information about his accuser.

The government findings do not specifically fault Tufts’s ultimate decision in the case and did not find that it retaliated against the student.

Rather, the finding faulted how the alleged victim was treated leading up to that decision. She first reported being assaulted in January 2010, but Tufts did not launch an investigation until June, when she put her allegations in writing, the Office for Civil Rights said. Tufts did not reach its decision until 18 months after she had first made the accusations.

Tufts inappropriately allowed potentially prejudicial information about the alleged victim to be used in the disciplinary case, the government found.

The university also failed for several months to tell her she had the option of moving out of her dormitory, where the accused student also resided, according to the Office of Civil Rights.

And Tufts hampered her participation in the university leadership program, first by having her alternate with the accused in attending the weekly seminars, then arranging for her not to participate at all, according to the findings.

Mary R. Jeka, senior vice president and general counsel, said the investigation took too long, but she does not agree with all the findings.

“We’ve learned over the years how to do these things a lot better, and we’re learning all the time,” Jeka said. “We hope to get better at it with every case, but we obviously know a lot more today than we did in 2010.”

Jeka and Monaco described a host of improvements they have made in the intervening years. Among them, the campus office that deals with complaints has been revamped, Monaco is currently chairing a task force on sexual misconduct prevention, and starting in the fall, all undergraduates will be required to go through online training on how bystanders can intervene to prevent sexual assault.

Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, noted in a statement that Tufts has improved and said she expects that the school “will return to productive progress for its students.”

Jeka also said the University would be hoping to return to negotiations. She said she thought Tufts and the government were already in agreement on a plan for future actions, but felt the finding that Tufts was out of compliance with Title IX was “excessive.”

Several instances of student misbehavior have brought negative publicity to Tufts in the last year and half. A student party in February 2013 at the Westin Copley Place Hotel devolved into drunken mayhem, with students vomiting and urinating in the lobby.

Also last winter, 27 members of the men’s lacrosse team were suspended for two games after they were said to have heckled women’s volleyball players with sexist and racist remarks.

On Tuesday, a White House task force on sexual assault is expected to recommend that schools identify trained, confidential victim’s advocates and conduct surveys to better gauge the frequency of sexual assault on their campuses.

The White House task force also promises greater transparency. A website, notalone.gov, will post enforcement actions and offer information to victims about how to seek local help and information about filing a complaint.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMarcella.
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