COLUMBIA — Joan Hermsen had been at MU for only a few years when a student confided to her that she had been sexually harassed on campus.
"The student was very adamant that she did not want to report the situation," said Hermsen, now chairwoman of the Department of Women's and Gender Studies. "I was very new ... and I didn't know at the time what one should do. There needs to be clear guidelines for what we as faculty do when this happens."
If a student walked into her office today with that same complaint, Hermsen said she is still unsure what university policies, if any, govern her response.
"I wouldn't make her report if she didn't want to," said Hermsen, who has been at MU for 15 years. "We probably are required to report — I just don't know."
MU is finalizing a policy that would clarify the responsibility of employees in such a situation, said campus Title IX Coordinator Noel English. The policy will take the form of a reporting requirement for select faculty and staff, known as "required reporters," when a student tells them about sexual violence, sexual harassment or other discrimination prohibited by the federal law.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights recommended universities adopt a reporting requirement in an April 2011 letter. Three years later, an ESPN investigation into the alleged sexual assault of former MU swimmer Sasha Menu Courey has highlighted the lack of a reporting requirement at the university.
English said it is premature to talk about the new policy in detail before it is released.
"Suffice it to say for now that we are concerned about the possibility that students will feel less inclined to seek help because of the reporting requirement," English said. "We are doing our best to come up with a policy that fulfills the institution’s obligations under Title IX while not deterring individuals from seeking assistance from those they trust."
Title IX and colleges
Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 prohibits discrimination on college campuses based on a person's sex.
Right now, there is no reporting requirement or mandatory training for MU faculty or staff on how to handle the reporting of Title IX incidents, such as cases of sexual harassment or violence.
When sexual harassment rises to the level that it interferes with employment or with education, it becomes illegal and also violates the university's policy on sex discrimination, according to the MU Equity office website. But even lesser levels of sexually harassing behaviors might be inconsistent with MU's commitment to a safe and inclusive work and learning environment, it also states.
If a student makes a complaint that falls under Title IX, MU faculty and staff are encouraged to report the incident through an online form or to contact English directly to receive information or referrals, according to the MU Equity office website.
According to the April 2011 letter, student-on-student sexual harassment and sexual violence are forms of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX. Public universities and colleges also should take steps to protect a student who was assaulted off campus from further sexual harassment or retaliation from the perpetrator, according to the letter.
Responsible employees who knew, or should have known, about a student affected by sexual violence or harassment are obligated to report the complaint to appropriate school officials — at MU this would be English and department heads — and the school is required to address it, according to the 2001 Sexual Harassment Guidance by the Office for Civil Rights.
Recommendations, such as the reporting requirement under Title IX, that come from the Office for Civil Rights are not mandated by law but are presented as blueprints for university processes, English said.
The Office for Civil Rights encourages schools to take proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment and violence before it occurs, and to take immediate and effective steps to address the situation when it does occur, according to a statement for this article from the Office for Civil Rights.
These encouraged recommendations are not required by law, according to the statement; however, it added universities have an obligation to address sexual harassment and violence.
All four University of Missouri System campuses are taking inventory of their programs and reporting mandates, said John Fougere, UM chief communications officer. He said he did not know a timeline for when these specific campus policies will be updated.
Sasha Menu Courey
A recent ESPN "Outside the Lines" investigation called into examination the responsibility of university employees to report sexual harassment complaints.
The investigation focused on Menu Courey, a swimmer on scholarship at Missouri, who committed suicide in June 2011, about 16 months after she was allegedly assaulted by one or more football players, according to previous Missourian reporting. Menu Courey was hospitalized several times for psychological problems before committing suicide.
A May 2011 journal entry from Menu Courey recalls a phone conversation with her athletic academic adviser, Meghan Anderson, in which Menu Courey said she mentioned the assault. The university has denied that Anderson knew about the alleged assault.
One in five women is sexually assaulted during her college years, according to a 2007 National Institute of Justice report, which is used by the Office for Civil Rights.
A task force — created by UM President Tim Wolfe after the ESPN report was released — is reviewing current policies and procedures for the reporting of sexual assaults and the accessibility of mental health resources at the four UM campuses, Fougere said. The review should be completed by the end of the month, he said.
Hermsen said she hopes the new campus policy will make clear the expectations of student confidentiality and what will occur after a report is filed. Faculty and staff also need to know what is at stake if they do not report an incident, she said.
"I suspect women faculty and staff are more likely already to hear first-hand accounts about harassment, sexual assault and rape," Hermsen said. "If that is true, then women faculty and staff are more likely to be caught in the bind of whether to report or not, and then to bear the consequences of that decision."
According to the 2001 Sexual Harassment Guidance, "responsible employees" obligated to report are defined as any employee who:
- has the authority to redress sexual violence;
- has been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual violence or other misconduct to the Title IX coordinator or school officials;
- a student could reasonably believe has this authority.
This definition has allowed universities to interpret who their required reporters are differently. At one university, "responsible employees" could be seen as all employees, while another university may interpret the definition to mean only certain employees. MU has not defined who its "responsible employees" will be.
MU has been working to assess and improve its process for handling student complaints of sexual harassment since the April 2011 letter was published, English said.
"Every time we think we have things covered, we discover new, recommended practices from OCR (the Office for Civil Rights)," English said. "Our job has been to evaluate and implement those recommendations in a way that best protects all the members of the MU community."
The recommended practice of "required reporting" was stated in the 2011 letter from the Office for Civil Rights. Three years later, MU has not made a decision on the reporting requirement.
While MU is one of many universities in the nation grappling with the issue of mandatory reporting, it is time to make a decision, said Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators.
"A university shouldn't wait until its campus is the one on the front pages," Sokolow said. "There is no reason for schools not to make a decision on this and move forward."
The University of Louisville, a public university of about 22,000 students in northern Kentucky, implemented a required reporting mandate in 2012, said Mary Elizabeth Miles, Louisville associate Title IX administrator.
"This is such a complicated and gray area, but we tried to make our policy as clear to our faculty, staff and students as possible," Miles said. "Our mandatory reporters tell the student upfront that they will have to make a report, but that doesn't mean the student has to be a part of an investigation or loses control of the situation."
A mandatory reporter at Louisville includes any employee in a supervisory or management role and any faculty member supervising programs that include direct contact with students outside of the classroom, Miles said.
According to Louisville's mandate, when a student reports a Tile IX incident to a mandatory reporter, that employee must immediately:
- Provide the alleged victim with a brochure outlining resources and reporting options;
- Contact the Title IX administrator, coordinator or investigator.
The biggest hesitation for Louisville employees, at first, was the feeling they would violate students' privacy or trust, Miles said.
Two years later, Miles said she has seen a comfort level grow among employees that wasn't there before, due to written policy Louisville has published on mandatory reporting and training courses.
"You feel better when you've been really educated in how to handle situations like a student coming into your office with a Title IX issue," Miles said. "Our faculty and staff trust that what they tell the student is really the truth. They know what to tell them."
A blanket reporting mandate
The simplest option that addresses all of the legal issues in play is a blanket reporting mandate, said Sokolow.
This mandate would require all MU faculty to report a complaint of sexual harassment to the Title IX coordinator or other appropriate authority.
There should be a crucial exception to the rule, Sokolow said, in which employees who are not in supervising positions are allowed to file Jane or John Doe reports.
"This approach allows a report to be created without compromising students who need a safe, confidential place to go," Sokolow said. "The Title IX coordinator will then be able to go back to the RA (residential assistant), counselor or teacher and say look, there's an imminent threat here and we need more information about this student."
MU senior Sheridan Brown said having the option to leave her name out of a report may help more victims of sexual harassment and assault come forward.
"A reporting requirement could be a really helpful thing, as long as it doesn't affect the victim in a negative way," said Brown, who founded the MU anti-bullying organization Peer-to-Peer. "Having the option to leave your name out of the situation would be really reassuring for some."
Is current training enough?
According to the 2001 guidance, schools need to train employees so those with authority to address harassment know how to respond appropriately and other responsible employees know they are obligated to report harassment to appropriate school officials.
Training that includes practical information about how to identify and report sexual harassment and violence should be provided to teachers, school law enforcement unit employees, school administrators, school counselors, general counsels, health personnel, and resident advisers, according to the 2011 letter.
Faculty and staff at UM campuses have been required to take an online training on the prevention of sexual harassment since 2008, Fougere said, and must pass an online test on the subject.
These online trainings are reviewed periodically, he said, and the sexual harassment training has undergone revisions in recent months.
English said she thinks the revised course will meet the technical Office of Civil Rights requirements, as would the new reporting requirement.
"When the reporting requirement is rolled out, there will have to be training to go with it," English said. "We will likely have some additional education for employees specifically regarding our new MU policy."
MU professor Deborah Huelsbergen said she seeks out training for how to handle disclosures of sexual harassment and assault, such as a mental health first aid class she took over the summer.
"When you suddenly find yourself in a situation like this, you have to quickly make a call on how to handle it," said Huelsbergen, who recalled several situations in which students approached her with complaints of sexual harassment. "But that doesn't mean everyone on this campus knows what to do."
Huelsbergen said she was unsure if current MU-required training adequately prepares employees for these situations.
Fougere also said each campus and the health system provides periodic, in-person training and seminars, and UM is in the process of inventorying that training.
Title IX training for employees should be more than a one-time event, said Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators.
"If schools want to use an online method for basic training, that's great, but there needs to be more added to it," Sokolow said. "Depending on the department or job, specific training is important because employees play different roles in students' lives."
MU theater professor Cheryl Black said she has not been trained specifically in how to handle Title IX incidents. She said that while she feared a mandate might discourage students who experience sexual harassment or assault from talking to anyone, these conversations about sexual assault and harassment are crucial moving forward.
"I really do have mixed feelings based on all my experiences as a woman, and as an advisor and mentor, for that matter," said Black, who has had a student confide in her in the past.
Hermsen said that based on her experiences and those of people she knows, it is not a common event for students tell faculty members they have been harassed or assaulted, so it may feel like Title IX recommendations don't have big impact on the day to day.
"But when those rare moments do happen, a clear set of guidelines is really needed," Hermsen said. "We also need to have conversations of treating other with the respect deserved. We need to focus on fixing the cause, rather than just reporting the aftermath."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.