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Webster University Starts New School Year Under Federal Monitoring For Title IX Compliance

Webster University's Webster Groves campus, photographed July 1, 2019, was the subject of a federal civil rights investigation.
Kae Petrin
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Webster University was the subject of a federal civil rights investigation.

Webster University’s fall semester starts on Monday, beginning a new school year with changes to its Title IX office in place.

The office, which handles allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment that could violate federal law, came under fire in 2019 for taking more than a year to investigate claims that a professor had sexually harassed a student.

The student filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights saying the university had mishandled the investigation. The university entered a federal agreement early this year requiring it to improve its Title IX office by April; the federal office is currently monitoring the university to make sure it complies.

A Webster University spokesperson declined an interview. But in a statement the university said it has implemented the federally required changes, including hiring new staff and an interim head for its Title IX program, updating its training materials and increasing the office’s online presence to make it more accessible to students.

“Webster is pleased to have reached an accord with OCR that demonstrates the University’s commitments to investigating and coordinating Title IX complaints in a timely and comprehensive manner that affords due process to all parties,” a representative said in a statement.

Tamsen Reed filed her initial complaint with Webster in April 2018, when she reported that game design professor Joshua Yates had harassed her by making sexual comments about her to other students. A year later, the university had not completed its investigation.

Reed filed a new complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the university “failed to respond promptly.” Then, Reed and more than a dozen other students publicly spoke against the university’s Title IX department, and the university hired an independent firm to complete the investigation.

In June 2019, more than 15 months after Reed opened her Title IX case with the university, Webster’s Title IX office ruled that the professor’s actions didn’t violate university policy or federal law because he only made sexual comments about Reed to others, not to her directly, and because his behavior “was found not to have impacted [Reed’s] education.”

“Any behavior found to be inappropriate and/or unprofessional, yet not a violation of Title IX, is reported to Human Resources to be handled outside of the Title IX process,” wrote Kimberly Pert, the university’s interim Title IX coordinator.

The Office for Civil Rights investigation, released in February, found that the university had not followed standard procedures for investigating and keeping records during the investigation. It also said that according to university records, Webster offered the professor opportunities to respond and question witnesses but did not offer the same opportunities to Reed. And it noted that the investigation often did not proceed except when Reed emailed the university’s Title IX office to ask for progress updates.

Webster University voluntarily agreed to change its policies, document and preserve all sexual harassment complaints and detail the investigations. It also pledged to hire a fully qualified coordinator to carry out such investigations.

Because Webster voluntarily agreed to change its practices, the federal investigation did not officially decide whether the university violated federal laws or enforce more serious sanctions against it. But if the university fails to make adequate changes, the office could resume its investigation.

Reed graduated last year. She said she was pleased with the Office for Civil Rights’ timeliness and thoroughness, especially following her experience with Webster, where she waited weeks and months without any updates from the Title IX office.

“I didn’t have to send weekly reminders that I still existed,” Reed said.

She said she’s heard from current students that they’re already seeing changes to Webster’s Title IX office. But after her experience, she’s not convinced that the university will continue to improve the office if it’s not being watched closely.

“I’m not sure that Webster is going to continuously keep up,” Reed said. “The student body I think still needs to speak out if things are going wrong.”

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

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