Office of Equal Opportunity sees rise in cases reported, remains optimistic

The Cannon, painted with a message raising awareness for Green Dot, is pictured in 2019. Courtesy Marley Hillman, Elise Sommers and Mauri Trimmer

A recent statistical report by the Tufts Office of Equal Opportunity indicated that the number of cases reported has been steadily increasing over the past five fiscal years. It states that the total caseload of reported allegations has risen from 668 reports in the 2019 fiscal year to 718 reports in the 2020 fiscal year. This data is consistent with the continual increase in reports over the last five years, a trend that Jill Zellmer, executive director of OEO, attributes to the cultural climate nationwide.

“There have been more prominent incidents of public harassment and discrimination … in the news in the last 5-6 years,” Zellmer wrote in an email to the Daily. “Tufts is not immune to this behavior, unfortunately.”

OEO is an administrative organization on campus concerned with managing and preventing instances of discrimination and misconduct among employees and students.

“Our primary responsibility is to establish uniform guidelines in order to promote a work and educational environment at Tufts University that is free of discrimination and harassment and to affirm Tufts’ commitment to equal opportunity, Title VI, Title VII, Title IX, and affirmative action,” Zellmer said.

The reporting statistics indicate that allegations of Title VI violations more than doubled over the last year, growing from 45 reports in 2019 to 91 in 2020. Title VI violations refer to non-sexual instances of misconduct between students, including conflicts related to race, ethnicity or religion

“Harassment of these types has increased across the country in the past several years, including during the pandemic,” Zellmer said.

Zellmer also noted that OEO recognized a change in the quantity and type of cases reported over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the 2020-2021 academic year, OEO experienced an increase in reports of cyber harassment of all types including cyber racial harassment, cyber sexual harassment, cyberstalking, domestic/relationship and/or intimate partner violence and harassment of all types via zoom bombing,” Zellmer said.

OEO’s report also tracked a decline in reported Title IX violations over the last fiscal year, down from 189 reports in 2019 to 157 reports in 2020. Title IX accounts for cases of sexual misconduct and gender discrimination experienced by students. Zellmer believes that COVID-19, and the physical distancing it required, may have influenced this decrease.

“In 2019-20 and 2020-21 there were fewer students on campus and social distancing guidelines may have contributed to fewer incidents,” Zellmer said.

Elizabeth Cucuzzella, a sophomore, is a Green Dot student ambassador with the Center for Awareness, Resources and Education. Green Dot is an on-campus organization that encourages bystander intervention in cases of sexual or other misconduct through training and advocacy. Cucuzzella explained that the organization has focused heavily on the impacts of COVID-19 on sexual misconduct over the past two years and spoke about how readjusting to in-person events reinforces the importance of consent. 

“Coming back this year, because we were all so isolated for so long, now everybody’s going back to … being in a social setting and being in a social environment,” Cucuzzella said. “And that’s really difficult to handle because the pandemic is still there. So it requires an extra layer of consent in everything, making sure — even with your friends — that your friends are okay with what’s going on.” 

Cucuzzella says that the organization has seen a greater demand for sexual misconduct prevention training as pandemic restrictions relax and individuals engage in greater levels of socializing.

“We’ve had a higher level of training requests this year than ever before,” she said. “Groups across campus are asking for trainings … they’re asking, ‘When we come back to these social environments, how do we keep each other safe?’”

Curry Brinson, president of Action for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), an organization that works to support survivors of sexual violence and ultimately put an end to sexual misconduct on campus, also noticed increased numbers of students participating in ASAP.  

“We have noticed an increase in ASAP’s participation and turnout this semester as compared to previous semesters,” Brinson, a senior, wrote in an email to the Daily. “We are excited that members of the Tufts community are eager to get involved with sexual violence prevention and survivor support.”

With regard to the OEO caseload report, Zellmer suggests that the increase in cases reported over the last five years may be due in part to people feeling more comfortable reporting these allegations than they have in the past.

“We’d like to think that some of this can be attributed to the positive reporting climate we have tried to create at Tufts, the greater awareness of our supportive resources, and the trust in the OEO process we hope to foster in individuals who do report,” Zellmer said.

Zellmer applies this to the recent increase in requests for religious accommodations or those related to disabilities, for both students and employees, which together increased from 150 requests in 2019 to 182 requests in 2020.

“The increase in accommodations cases … has more to do with the new Religious Accommodation Policy we implemented in 2019 to respond to a rise in those types of cases,” she said. “After March 2020 OEO did experience more requests of this type related to COVID-19.”

Zellmer emphasizes that OEO is diligently working to ensure the safety and wellness of the Tufts community.

“OEO [strives] to create an environment in which students feel secure and supported in reporting experiences with discrimination and harassment, and that they can do so without fear of retaliation for filing a complaint,” she said. “We want to make sure students involved with us have the resources and supports they need to access their education.”