Students question Title IX office’s accessibility and conduct

Megan, a DePaul sophomore whose name has been changed to protect her identity, emailed the Title IX office in October to report an assault by another student at a DePaul-sponsored event. The office responded fairly quickly, and a man who worked in the Title IX office asked her to set up a time to speak the following week.

When she arrived for their meeting, Megan said the Title IX representative informed her that he had already spoken to her attacker. He also told her that because her attacker had addressed decisions from her past and that alcohol had been involved in her assault—on both ends, though her attacker had taken illicit drugs, which she had refused—they could not believe her story.

“Although I had witnesses of what happened, he simply would not listen,” she said. “When I got upset, he suggested I try counseling to deal with my alcohol and drug use. There was no discussion of any other steps I could take through DePaul, and there were no consequences for the other student involved.”

Megan said that the experience was belittling and left the office “bawling [her] eyes out.”

“I felt very betrayed and honestly, stupid for even trying to report the assault,” she said.

Megan said the office did not inform her of her legal rights under Title IX, and she sought out counseling from a therapist not affiliated with DePaul. She said she never heard from the Title IX coordinator herself, Jessica Landis.

Landis declined to comment on this matter, citing no questions sent to her in advance and “an obligation to honor the privacy and dignity of students and those who work with [the Title IX] office.”

In a previous interview with The DePaulia, Landis explained that her day-to-day tasks as Title IX coordinator primarily consist of reaching out to survivors whose complaints fall under Title IX, like assault.

“Whenever a report comes in related to discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex—so that includes several of the categories of that policy—or our Sexual and Relationship Violence policy, I reach out to the person who has been impacted by that harm and let them know what their rights and resources are, and I invite them to meet with me,” she said. “[…]What I do is I review that report, and then either myself or the person who received the report provides the student with our Sexual and Relationship Violence information sheet if it is related to SRV.”

A lack of clear communication and information is a major issue that can hinder the productivity of any organization. For a department dealing with issues of sexual violence, these pitfalls can prove even more problematic.

For institutions that receive federal financial assistance, gender-based discrimination is prohibited by decree of Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 which until recently, pertained mostly to gender equality in sports. In 2011, Title IX came to include complaints of sexual violence. Many say they feel that the university’s Title IX department is not doing enough to help students.

“Title IX is a lot of people who are not survivors dictating what survivors do and do not need,” said Nina Wilson, a student employee for DePaul’s women’s center who formerly worked with Title IX directly.

Lucy Kelliher, a sophomore at DePaul, also had a negative experience with the department when a Title IX representative came to speak to her Explore Chicago class her freshman year.

“[The representative] said most of reported sexual assaults on campus are false allegations,” Kelliher said. “I said, ‘That’s not true, and you’re the Title IX coordinator, so why would you think that?’”

Landis was not the Title IX coordinator at this time; Karen Tamburro held the position, serving from 2015 to 2018, before Landis took over. She was the first person to hold the full-time position as Title IX coordinator at DePaul, according to Landis. Universities are not required to hire someone for this full-time position.

Tamburro is now the Director of Equal Opportunity and Access for Northwestern’s Office of Equity. She declined to comment for this story.

Grievances like these have drawn into question the efficacy of DePaul’s Title IX department. The numbers tell the same story.

In the 2017 Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act Annual Report, which outlines the number of sexual violence reports made by or about DePaul students in 2016, there were 105 reports of sexual violence at DePaul. Of those reports, 72 were made to the Title IX coordinator directly, and 33 were made through confidential and anonymous reporting resources. The first year colleges were required to report these statistics was 2017. 

Those numbers increased by 160 percent in just one year. There were 274 reports of sexual violence made by or about DePaul students in 2017, as written in the 2018 report which came out in November.

While the number of reports made directly to the Title IX coordinator decreased to 60 reports of sexual violence in 2017, the number of confidential or anonymous reports of sexual violence rose to 214. In anonymous reports alone, this indicates a 548.5 percent increase in reported sexual violence from the previous year.

While the most recent report came out in November, students have indicated a lack of accessibility, knowledge of the report and clarity as to what those numbers mean.

“If you look at the numbers, you have to dig pretty deep,” said Charlotte Byrd, a member of Students for Reproductive Justice at DePaul. “You have to have a Campus Connect login to gain this information.”

When asked about the significant increase in number of sexual violence reports made, Landis indicated the difference doesn’t necessarily mean the number of sexual violence incidents increased.

“We were able to identify a new source of data for confidential disclosures that wasn’t identified in the previous year,” she said in an email. “Additionally, the university has seen an increase in reporting since programming and outreach efforts have increased.”

Landis could not be reached for comment regarding the specifics of the new system or which new efforts were applied.

While the coordinators have changed over the years, it appears that the practices have not. At the many events pertaining to survivors rights and awareness that have occurred on campus this month, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, representatives from Title IX have been widely absent.

Students have said that when it comes to circulating helpful information pertaining to sexual misconduct, the Office of Health Promotion and Wellness is a more helpful source.

“One of the reasons we work closer with HPW is that Hannah Retzkin, our advisor and the Sexual and Relationship Violence Prevention Specialist at DePaul, is that she is one of the few people on campus who is not a mandatory reporter,” said Grace Gubbrud, president of Advocates for Sexual Assault Prevention. “Meaning if someone discloses something to her, she keeps it 100 percent confidential. Jessica [Landis], on the other hand, must always make note of anything disclosed to her.”

Despite the fact that some students have taken issue with the department, some faculty members say their experience has been different.

Rod Waters, director of Residential Education at DePaul says that he is very appreciative of the Title IX department and stated that the two departments have maintained a good relationship.

“Residential Education has a very healthy and collaborative relationship with the Title IX office,” Waters said. “…The leadership from Residential Education meets with the Title IX Coordinator on a regular basis. Through this ongoing communication and contact, it has allowed us to cultivate a good working relationship, and to continually review processes and how we provide care and support to members of our residential community.”

Waters said their relationship has allowed sexual violence training at DePaul to run smoothly. He stated that both professional staff in the department and RAs receive extensive training on matters of sexual and relationship violence.

DePaul junior and residential advisor of two years Joel Luciano echoed Waters’ views on DePaul’s Residential Education department in relation to their sexual violence training.

“I think [Residential Education] relies heavily on RAs to prevent as well as provide the students with the proper tools, whether it be resources or information regarding any subject,” Luciano said. “I don’t think anything can truly prepare you for sexual violence, but the [residential education] training tries its best to provide us the adequate guidelines and resources to help the student.”

Despite this, trauma informed response training is not mandatory for employees and survivor support training and bystander intervention training was not mandatory until 2014.

Prior to taking the position of Title IX coordinator at DePaul in September 2018, Landis was the Deputy Title IX Coordinator at Loyola University. While at Loyola, Landis came under criticism for a perceived mishandling of a sexual assault case.

Michael McDevitt is a senior at Loyola and the managing editor of The Loyola Phoenix, the school’s student newspaper. In 2017, he collaborated on a story detailing a female Loyola student who said she was sexually assaulted twice by two separate men, who happened to be friends.

The student expressed concerns that the two friends might be able to bolster and confirm each others’ stories to the detriment of the survivor when filing the complaint. McDevitt said the student expressed these concerns to Landis, the then-deputy Title IX coordinator at Loyola.

“What Jess had told her is that they would keep the cases separate, and what that would mean is that, or what [the student] took it as [is], that the guys wouldn’t be witnesses in each others cases, because they were friends,” McDevitt said. “So, obviously she thought it was a little bit biased to have them be able to coordinate what they were gonna say together if they truly were separate cases.”

The student later learned that the two men who were accused were, in fact, allowed to speak as witnesses for each other.

Additionally, the student was not made aware that a verbal report of the assault could be replaced by a written report if preferred, even after indicating that for her, giving a verbal report would be very traumatic. When the Phoenix questioned Landis about this matter, McDevitt said Landis told them the student needed to specifically ask in order to be able to write about the incident instead of giving verbal testimony.

“There was some sort of misunderstanding there. Jess [Landis] wasn’t very helpful in [the student’s] eyes,” McDevitt said. “She was on vacation a lot and took a little bit to respond. They were handling the case over the summer when this happened and so it was on and off, it would be tough to reach her sometimes, there was no other point of contact really. I don’t know if that’s more of a failing of Loyola or if its just her.”

Landis declined to comment on this matter. DePaul’s Office of Public Relations and Communication also declined to comment on whether they knew of these complaints prior to Landis’ hire in September, citing the fact that “everybody is on holiday right now.”

Some students say they recognize these situations as shortcomings and want change at DePaul.

“I think DePaul needs to do a better job of following up on reports and looking into what actually happened,” Megan said. “This definitely impacted how I felt about DePaul. It makes me less trusting of the staff.”