A federal civil rights office has opened an investigation into whether Webster University mishandled complaints of sexual harassment.
The investigation, confirmed by a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education, comes less than a month after students mounted a public campaign against the university's Title IX office in May. Students said the school failed to address complaints that game design professor Joshua Yates had sexually harassed a student.
At least two students at the university’s campus in Webster Groves have filed complaints against Yates through the school’s Title IX office, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws.
In June, the university announced that an independent audit found multiple problems with its Title IX office and processes, and pledged to remedy them. The university also selected a new, interim coordinator for the office. (Officials would not discuss the circumstances of the previous coordinator’s replacement.)
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights could require the school to make additional changes if the federal investigation determines that Webster’s Title IX office has not complied with federal law.
The federal investigation could examine whether student complaints received prompt treatment or whether students were allowed to appeal decisions made by the university’s Title IX office, according to B. Ever Hanna, an attorney with the nonprofit End Rape On Campus. The organization advocates for policy changes on college campuses and helps students file federal complaints.
Hanna said investigations at other universities have required them to release annual reports about the Title IX investigations they’ve completed, including case outcomes and timelines.
Some schools, including Washington University, report these numbers regularly. Webster University has declined to make similar information public.
A yearlong sexual harassment case
Webster University student Tamsen Reed waited nearly a year for Webster University's Title IX office to investigate her reports that Yates had harassed her.
The university's Title IX policy says it "intends" to complete investigations within 60 days, though there's no legal requirement to complete them within a specific timeframe.
Frustrated that progress on her case seemed to have stalled, Reed moved her complaint up to the federal level in April. She also began compiling student statements, which discussed Yates making discriminatory comments in his classes and other instances of sexual harassment on campus. In May, she posted those reports on Twitter.
Then, more than 400 days after Reed filed a formal report with Webster’s Title IX office, she received a response.
“The reported behavior did not violate any specific sections” of the university’s Title IX policy, wrote Kimberley Pert, Webster’s interim Title IX coordinator. That’s in part because the alleged sexual comments were said about Reed to other students and professors, rather than to her directly, Pert wrote to Reed. Pert also claimed in the letter that the reported sexual harassment did not interfere with Reed’s education.
Reed disputes that interpretation.
“The harassment grew larger than itself given that the comments were made to other students and professors,” Reed said. “By asking my peers whether I was the type of girl to sleep with a professor for a better grade, making jokes and remarks about my clothing choices, or reporting to other professors that I was coming on to him, Yates gathered others in his efforts to demean me.”
Yates’ staff bio has been removed from Webster’s website, and he is no longer in course listings for next year. A university spokesperson declined to comment on whether Yates still worked for the university.
Reed also said she never had an opportunity to see or comment on Yates’ response to her complaint — a step that’s required in Webster’s Title IX processes.
The decision seems to “not understand the law,” according to Sarah Jane Hunt, an attorney who has worked in Title IX law since 2013 with the law firm Kennedy Hunt. Federal law doesn’t specifically require sexual harassment to be said to the person it’s about, Hunt said.
“What they’re saying with this decision is, it’s OK for a professor to make sexual comments as long as it’s not to a student’s face. I think that’s absurd,” Hunt said.
Reed said officials from the federal Office for Civil Rights contacted her on June 19 and informed her that they plan to investigate the university. That day, the office opened a formal investigation into the school “for possible discrimination based on sex – specifically, sexual harassment,” according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education.
The spokeperson wrote that the Office for Civil Rights cannot confirm details about open investigations, including whether the investigation is related to Reed’s complaint.
Reed said she wouldn’t be surprised if someone else had filed an unrelated complaint, and she hopes that either way, the investigation could lead to change.
“When this inevitably happens again, there will be a paper trail of evidence for the OCR (hopefully under a more progressive administration) to prove Webster’s disregard,” she wrote in an email.
A pledge to improve
In response to the statements that Reed released online last month, the university hired an independent firm to audit its Title IX office.
The audit found “several areas where improvements could be made” to the Title IX office and its procedures, according to an email sent to faculty on June 12 by university President Elizabeth Stroble.
“We take these findings seriously, and we do not tolerate anything short of excellence in the investigation of Title IX matters,” Stroble wrote. “The concerns raised and the ensuing investigation give us an opportunity to assure that we are employing best practices in our Title IX Office.”
The university has planned a number of changes based on the audit’s recommendations, according to Stroble’s letter. Those include evaluating the office’s workload to see whether staff should be added; updating training for students, faculty and Title IX office staff; and reviewing policies to ensure they align with federal law. Stroble also wrote that staff members have stressed the “importance of completing investigations in a thorough and timely manner” to the Title IX office’s staff.
A university spokesperson declined to answer questions about the audit and potential changes to the Title IX program.
Former Webster student Chester Bacon said he doesn’t think the audit will lead to substantive changes.
Bacon was in Reed’s graduating class and took several classes with Yates. After Reed went public with her experience, Bacon also filed a complaint against Yates. Bacon, who is transgender, said that Yates asked him invasive questions about his genitalia and dating history.
At this point, Bacon said he doesn’t have faith that the university will investigate his complaint properly.
“I 100% think that there’s a mishandling of the situation. And I hope that [federal investigators] can see that when they open this investigation and go in,” Bacon said. “Is it going to get people justice? Probably not. But at least they’ll be held accountable, because for me, I can’t forsee them doing anything correctly.”
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