Feds arrive on campus for on-going sexual assault investigation

Members of the Department of Education from the Office for Civil rights visited campus during the month of November to investigate  Westminster's handling of sexual assault cases on campus.  

Members of the Department of Education from the Office for Civil rights visited campus during the month of November to investigate  Westminster's handling of sexual assault cases on campus.  

One in five women are victims of sexual assault in their college career, according to a study by the Association of American Universities. In recent years, college communities have tried to combat and address the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses—a conversation that has not missed Westminster’s campus.

Over 200 Westminster students, faculty and staff signed the It’s On Us pledge—an advocacy campaign trying to shift the way sexual assault is addressed and stigmatized— on Nov. 12 in the Shaw Student Center during lunch hours as people rushed in and out of the crowded space.

Only a week earlier, a sign-up sheet for meetings with investigators from the Department of Education from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) visit Nov. 3–5 had held the same place in Shaw.

Whitney Walton, senior customized major, is the president of The Tipping Point, an on-campus club devoted to raising awareness and promoting advocacy against sexual assault and human trafficking.

Walton attended a voluntary meeting, but even before attending she said she had questions regarding how the college has handled the sexual assault case in 2013.  

“There was no statement made like ‘We’ve made this mistake,’” Walton said. “Or, ‘We haven’t handled things in the past, we’re recognizing that and we’re sorry. This is what we want to do in the future.’ Why didn’t we get that?”

The on-going federal investigation and how Westminster handled the sexual assault case from 2013, prompted OCR investigators to visit campus.

Myths and facts about sexual assault, in light of the OCR visit. 

Myths and facts about sexual assault, in light of the OCR visit. 

The assault occurred off campus on Nov. 10, 2013, at 1 a.m. It was initially reported to campus patrol and referred to the Salt Lake City Police Department the same morning.

The OCR visit addressed the 2013 assault and also opened Westminster’s records from 2012 to 2014. The department sorted through 14 other sexual assault and misconduct claims that were filed, according to Westminster’s records.

The federal agents who visited campus wanted to understand Westminster’s climate and the Title IX resources and policies. There were three different group settings for meetings: specific, invitation and voluntary.

Specific groups were comprised of individuals the feds asked to see who were involved with the case. Those individuals then had one-on-one meetings with the OCR.

Invitation groups were made up of diverse individuals from around campus, such as student body leaders, athletes, resident advisers, administrators, feminist club members and gender studies professors.

All students and faculty were encouraged to participate through voluntary groups—20-minute time slots to talk to an OCR representative.

Jason Schwartz-Johnson, Westminster’s Title IX coordinator and EO compliance officer was interviewed by The Forum before the visit, said that the focus groups were like “smaller town hall meetings.”

Costantino Lasiy, ASWC president and a senior international student, said he was asked by Schwartz-Johnson to attend a meeting. He attended an invitation group meeting on Nov. 5.

Lasiy described the meeting as more focused on legal than ethical issues, which he said surprised him at first.

“Going into it, I thought that they would be judging us on an ethical standpoint of is the school actually fighting sexual assault and respecting sexual equity,” Lasiy said. “In the end, though, it came down to be legal, very dry…I thought it was just really lawyery. It was all about the legality and they laid out all the points we have to respect. And they really didn’t care about the ethics of anything. It really just looked like an inquiry.”

Kara Barnette, assistant professor of gender studies and philosophy, attended two OCR meetings and said she experienced the same lawyer-like procedure as Lasiy.

“It was clear in the meetings that what they were looking for was an understanding of both how educated the population at Westminster is about Title IX procedures and how comfortable they were with Title IX procedures,” Barnette said. “That was kind of the dual function. And in doing so, they were clear that they were trying to gage how safe everybody felt on campus.”

Moving forward, the OCR will compile the interviews and findings from the campus visit.

The OCR visit will help Westminster plan to do better in the future, said Melissa Flores—who was Westminster’s general counsel until Oct. 31—before the OCR visit. Flores now works for Salt Lake Community College, but started as a part-time attorney for Westminster on Nov. 1. The Forum interviewed Flores before the OCR visit.

“[The OCR final report] will talk about things that surprised them that people were saying,” Flores said. “They will talk about things that the Office for Civil Rights feels like maybe we need to do better and it will help us to then plan for the future.”

The final report and resolution from the OCR is submitted to the Office of the President at the college and then published online on the OCR’s website within a few months,  Flores said.

The OCR final report and resolution will “list everything,” Flores said. “It is very, very transparent, and that’ll list everything. It doesn’t keep anything back.”

Members of the community reflected on the OCR experience and how Westminster should move forward to discuss beyond just what’s included in the OCR report.

Professor Barnette said that there is only so much that the OCR can focus on when they are required to stay within the boundaries of Title IX law.

“We have to keep in mind that OCR specifically deals within the framework of the Title IX law,” Barnette said. “And that framework of the Title IX law is not broad enough for us to be able to address all of the concerns that are on campus...like how issues of safety operate at both a physical and a psychological level. And the OCR—because of their limitation within the law—aren’t going to be able to get those conversations to us. Those are going to have to come from us.”

ASWC President Lasiy said that bare minimum functions are never enough, and Westminster can always progress and push to do better as a community.

“When you look at the statistics and you see them, you can’t say we’re doing enough,” Lasiy said. “You can always improve it. You should always improve and work at it.”

Lasiy said he thinks Westminster is trying to change.

“I see a lot of students and members of faculty and staff who truly seem to be working toward [combating and addressing sexual assault], and it seems like they are fueling an ongoing discussion,” Lasiy said.

That idea of an ongoing discussion is something that Carli Trujillo, a senior customized major and president of The Feminist Club, echoed and wanted to see developed after the visit. She was contacted via email by Schwartz-Johnson, Westminster’s Title IX coordinator, to attend a meeting and announce the opportunity to The Feminist Club. She attended an invitation meeting on Nov. 5.

“The more conversations we have like this is just better for everyone,” Trujillo said. “Just so people who are aware of Title IX and how it is handled on our campus can teach others just through conversations.”

Trujillo said that she felt her voice was heard from the OCR meeting, but there was more for Westminster to do regarding Title IX.

“Our school can do a better job of the presentations we decide to give to the students, especially the first-year students,” Trujillo said. “We need to make some kind of interactive participation-based program so that learning about Title IX doesn’t feel so much like a chore or an obligation...I would recommend the school take a more interactive approach to teaching people about Title IX.”

Students with questions or in need of more information regarding Title IX can contact Westminster's Title IX Coordinator and EO Compliance Officer Jason Schwartz-Johnson.