Megan ZerezMercury Staff
In the aftermath of allegations of sexual harassment and managerial misconduct by Chartwells managers, faculty and student leaders raised questions about mandated reporting of sexual misconduct and the responsibility to respond to such allegations.
Certain students, such as those elected to Student Government, are also considered “responsible employees” and are required by law to report any instances of sexual misconduct that they witness or are made aware of. With a few exceptions, most university faculty and staff are also considered “responsible employees.”
Denise Boots is a professor of public policy and political economy who researches Title IX and other policies related to interpersonal violence.
“Even our student vice president and president were confused,” Boots said. “My understanding is that they are required to report, but they were told by other administrators that they were not required to report.”
Computer science professor Ravi Prakash serves as Speaker of the Academic Senate, the representative body of the faculty. Prakash served as a representative for the faculty during a March 26 meeting in which the allegations were discussed.
“The question I have — and it hasn’t been answered — is when an article (alleging sexual misconduct) appears in The Mercury but a student hasn’t lodged a formal complaint with a responsible university officer, should the Title IX office take cognizance of this and initiate (proceedings)?” Prakash said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Boots also attended the meeting as a faculty representative.
“When I heard (about the allegations), my hair stood up straight. I had questions,” Boots said. “I wanted to know if a Title IX investigation had been launched immediately upon (publication of) that Mercury article.”
The meeting, organized by Auxiliary Services, included student workers employed by Parking and Transportation as well as Chartwells and representatives from the Academic Senate and Student Government.
The meeting’s original purpose was “to obtain various student perspectives about on campus work experiences and to provide feedback,” per a statement from Bob Fishbein, Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services. Fishbein, Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services.
Computer science senior Anuhya Emmandi was one of two representatives from SG present at the meeting. She said the meeting began addressing broader concerns but soon focused on allegations against Chartwells. SG’s main intent for the meeting was to ensure students knew their rights and resources for reporting under Title IX. She added that some students had expressed frustration about an apparent lack of response from the university regarding the allegations but that the meeting was a good first step.
“To me it felt like it was also a response … (from) the university stepping in and saying essentially, ‘Here’s how we’re going to talk to students and take a look at this problem,’” Emmandi said. “Because students really hadn’t seen a response from the university —like a public response.”
Student Government President Eric Chen was also present at the meeting but was unavailable for comment prior to publication.
Prakash echoed Emmandi’s concerns.
“This is something that we told the students in that meeting: ‘You can come and talk to us and then we are required to report it.’ We cannot ignore it.” Prakash said. “If we ignore it we would be breaking the law. They could take it to any faculty member and it would get escalated to Title IX.”
Senior Director of Compliance Marco Mendoza serves as the university’s Title IX coordinator. While allegations shared in news articles and other public forums are not considered official notifications to the university, they are addressed accordingly if the Title IX Office becomes aware of them, Mendoza said.
“Allegations do not need to be reported as a formal complaint in order for an investigation to be initiated,” Mendoza said in a written statement. “However, individuals are strongly encouraged to file a written complaint because the ability of the Title IX Office to conduct a proper investigation may depend on the amount of information and detail provided to the investigator.”
The former student worker contacted for the Jan. 14 issue of The Mercury agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of physical retribution and challenges to employment and immigration status. The Mercury was able to verify the student had received text messages containing threats and sexual innuendos from a former Chartwells manager at Chick-fil-A. While she did not consent to publication of her name, she allowed other details to be published, such as her graduation date and former place of employment.
“If there’s a name listed or even a respondent name listed, we would contact that individual and try to at least determine: did this happen, are you aware of this incident?” Mendoza said. “If they say no, that’s really all we can do unless additional evidence is brought forward,” Mendoza said.
In his time as coordinator, Mendoza said he had not found a cause to investigate a case involving Chartwells or its employees.
Boots said it’s important for UTD to conduct Title IX proceedings with the diversity of the student body in mind.
“There are very strong ethnic, cultural and religious issues that come into disclosures and they can have fatal effects on a victim,” Boots said. “I have had students over the years who have shared past sexual assaults … not at UTD … and them telling me literally, ‘I would be killed when I returned home if my family found out.’”
Navigating Title IX can be challenging on the university’s end too, especially with recent changes to the policy at both the federal and state levels, Boots said. Trump’s appointed Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, introduced new guidelines last year that would narrow the definition of sexual misconduct and increase the accusers’ burden of proof, among other changes.
“Every university — because of litigation — is looking very hard at how (Trump era guidelines) are going to change how they’re going to investigate, how they’re going to have to staff their Title IX office,” Boots said.
UTD’s Title IX office recently underwent reorganization: it was absorbed into the Office of Compliance. Mendoza, who had served as the Interim Title IX coordinator since November 2018, accepted the full-time position as coordinator on April 22. Mendoza said he’s hopeful that the rearrangement and permanent position will allow his office to better serve the university community.
Boots said the success of the office relies on trust between the coordinator and the community they serve.
“How do we build better trust — maybe that’s the question,” Boots said. “Maybe it’s improving Title IX and not just offering online training, but seminars on Title IX throughout the semester that are live, where we have a person that can answer questions, where we have researchers that do work on Title IX, where we actively train our student government and our organization of student leaders on campus.”
Emmandi said she was not aware of any plans to educate SG officers about their responsibilities as “responsible employees” this academic year, but that the incoming administration might address the issue after taking office.
Prakash said despite the questions, he considered the meeting to be a step in the right direction.
“At the end of this meeting, students were better informed about their rights. They’re better informed of the protections the university is obliged to provide to them,” Prakash said. “A lot of them did not know that. The first step to preventing this kind of abuse in the future is to let people know that they have these protections.”
Correction (4/30/2019): Denise Boots’ title was previously reported as a professor of criminology and sociology. She is a professor of public policy and political economy. The Mercury regrets this error.