Tufts University Backs Down On Standoff With Feds Over Sexual Assault Policies

After being threatened with getting cut off from federal funding, Tufts University announced Friday it would enter back into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that laid out reforms the Massachusetts school must make to its sexual violence policies.

In April, the Education Department announced the conclusion of a multi-year investigation into how the university handles sexual misconduct on campus. The Education Department concluded Tufts was in violation of the gender equity law Title IX in its handling of sexual assault and harassment. In response to that decision, on April 26, Tufts' general counsel wrote to the department stating she was revoking her signature, an action that constituted a breach of the agreement signed on April 17 by the the university and the Education Department.

Officials from the department's Office for Civil Rights signaled that unless the university came back to enter the agreement, the department would begin a process of blocking the school from federal funding, though experts said that could have taken several years.

However, Tufts said it officially recommitted to the Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the OCR on Thursday.

"We look forward to working collaboratively with the OCR to address the terms of the agreement as we continue implementing best practices that meet the needs of our community," Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco said in a statement.

The investigation was launched in response to a complaint filed by a student, according to a copy of the resolution letter from the OCR to Tufts officials. Tufts took six months to begin looking into the complainant's report of sexual assault, and subsequently took a year before concluding its investigation. The accused male student was allowed during the university's adjudication to include details of the complainant's sexual history in his defense.

The OCR said they reviewed several other sexual assault cases, speaking with the reported victims. Those victims told the OCR they had "dissatisfaction with the then-Dean of Student Affairs’ role in the process, stating that the Dean lacked empathy for the students and did not provide adequate information about the process, including information about available interim measures, disagreement with the sanctions imposed on students found responsible for sexual harassment/violence, and criticism that the definition of the most serious form of sexual assault then used by the panel was inadequate, particularly for gay and lesbian students."

The OCR noted the university went nearly two years without a Title IX coordinator in place. However, in 2011, the university began making reforms to its Title IX policies, the OCR said.

By spring 2013, two student groups would declare in an open letter the university had made "great strides ... in combating sexual assault on campus” and stated that the reforms “have already had a positive effect on the Tufts community." Those groups had further recommendations, and the university launched a working group in fall 2013 to continue reviewing such policies.

The working group is expected to reconvene in fall 2014 to develop a plan for the implementation of their recommendations, the OCR said.

"We are committed to doing still more through the work of the university-wide Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Prevention convened in Fall 2013," Monaco said. "This includes implementing the actions outlined in the Voluntary Resolution Agreement signed with the federal Office for Civil Rights and adding two new positions to provide additional educational and support services to our community."

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in a statement the university took "swift action to cure its breach of its April 17 agreement with the OCR, and I look forward to working with President Monaco and the university community to ensure the safety of all students on campus."

The OCR laid out a series of steps Tufts must take, like reporting annually to the OCR, enhancing outreach to and feedback from students, providing regular training on Title IX requirements to members of the community and providing timely and effective interim relief for complainants.