In a bid to make it easier for victims to come forward, the University of Colorado’s newly hired Title IX coordinator is creating one investigative team to look into claims of discrimination and harassment.
Valerie Simons, who was hired this summer to oversee all Title IX complaints on the Boulder campus, is bringing together the university investigators who look into student complaints and investigators who look into staff complaints.
Under the new structure, which is expected to be finalized by May, eight investigators will be trained to look into all complaints of discrimination and harassment, which includes sexual assault.
“There will be one office for fact-finding,” Simons said in a recent interview with the Daily Camera. “That will be the neutral fact-finding body that we’re bringing together currently.”
Right now, discrimination and harassment complaints involving students are investigated by the Office of Student Conduct and complaints involving staff are investigated by the Office of Discrimination and Harassment.
By combining the investigators into one centralized office, Simons hopes to make the process of reporting a claim simpler for victims and witnesses.
Having two separate investigative offices can be confusing for witnesses and victims, who are already experiencing trauma or discomfort and may be wavering about whether to come forward.
“One of my goals in terms of that in particular is to try to increase reporting,” Simons said. “Because we know that statistically speaking, and we can’t say for sure, statistically speaking it seems like there is traditionally under-reporting, so we want reporting to go up.”
Simons said she’ll be watching to see if a team of eight investigators is enough for the Boulder campus. If reporting goes up, Simons said she may ask university leaders to consider hiring more investigators.
Though it will no longer investigate discrimination and harassment claims, the Office of Student Conduct will continue to investigate other student code violations, such as drug and alcohol violations. That office also will continue to provide sanctions to students who violate any part of the student code.
Sanctions for staff will continue to be handed down by supervisors.
Simons, whose full title is director of institutional equity and compliance, said the combined investigative team will likely live under some new name.
Though it hasn’t been decided where the team will work at the university, Simons said she’d like to find office space for all the investigators on main campus.
The university prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and political affiliation, among other protected classes. CU also prohibits sexual harassment, retaliation, sexual assault and amorous relationships when one individual supervises the other.
Title IX, the federal gender equity law, also requires colleges and universities to investigate sexual assault, sexual harassment and retaliation claims.
CU’s Boulder campus is one of nearly 80 colleges and universities under investigation by the U.S. education department for potentially violating Title IX.
In response to the start of that investigation last summer, Chancellor Phil DiStefano commissioned his own independent Title IX review.
One of the key recommendations to come out of that review was to hire one Title IX coordinator with “ultimate” oversight responsibility, and to “coordinate resources” between the Office of Student Conduct and Office of Discrimination and Harassment.
Simons said the merging of the investigative teams is a direct result of that recommendation. The new investigative office may require the campus to also review existing investigative processes and policies on discrimination and harassment, she added.
“Because we’re bringing in two processes that have traditionally been separate, we’ll be looking to make sure that that is a process where we are doing the best for both sides,” she said. “We’re reviewing all parts of the investigation to make sure they’re compliant with best practices.”
The White House has paid close attention recently to the issue of campus sexual assaults. Last week, the nation’s leaders began the “It’s On Us” campaign to get everyone, especially men and bystanders, involved in preventing sexual violence on campus.
Eventually, Simons said she hopes to add staff members to lead the university’s education and prevention efforts around sexual assault. She also is considering a separate arm that would work on accommodations for the respondents and complaints, such as confidential advisers and victim advocates.