New Title IX investigator to help streamline sexual misconduct process

Olivia Exstrum, Managing Editor

When Colleen Johnston learned Northwestern was looking to hire a Title IX investigator, she knew she wanted to apply.

Johnston, who has a background in civil rights enforcement and law, said she had been looking for an opportunity to transition back into higher education.

Johnston started as NU’s first Title IX investigator at the beginning of the quarter. She said she hopes to make students aware of available resources and ensure they are treated with respect throughout the sexual misconduct investigation process.

“My goals are to provide a prompt and equitable response to the complaints and conduct a thorough and impartial investigation that’s also well-documented,” she said.

Johnston is responsible for investigating complaints filed with the University related to sexual misconduct, NU’s Title IX coordinator Joan Slavin said in a statement at the beginning of April.

Johnston previously worked for Chicago’s Commission on Human Relations, where she investigated discrimination complaints, and was executive director of the Human Rights Commission in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Slavin said Johnston’s investigating experience made her a good fit for the job. She wrote in an email to The Daily in early April that Johnston had skills “closely aligned with our needs.”

The U.S. Department of Education in April 2014 announced it would require universities and school districts to appoint a federally-mandated Title IX coordinator. Beyond this, the guidelines suggest larger universities should consider having multiple coordinators, although it is not required.

“A critical responsibility for schools under Title IX is to designate a well-qualified, well-trained Title IX coordinator and to give that coordinator the authority and support necessary to do the job,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, in an April 24 news release.

Carrie Wachter, survivor advocate at the Center for Awareness, Response and Education, said the creation of the investigator position was a “progressive step” for NU.

“That’s showing their commitment … that the reports are being investigated in a very timely process,” Wachter said. “I see them going above that requirement by bringing this on because it’s not a requirement at all.”

Wachter said the new position will help distribute responsibilities under the federal gender-discrimination law known as Title IX and create a more “comfortable and timely” adjudication process for sexual misconduct cases. She also said she wants to work with Johnston to facilitate some Title IX training on campus.

The two offices Johnston will work with — the Sexual Harassment Prevention Office and Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution — are sometimes burdened with the Title IX-related responsibilities they have, Wachter said.

“There’s a lot they’re doing. It kind of makes the process itself not as smooth as it could be,” Wachter said. “Having her there, it distributes it.”

NU posted the opening for a Title IX investigator in December. The position was implemented as part of a complete overhaul of NU’s hearing and appeals system for sexual misconduct cases. Beginning in September, all cases of alleged student misconduct were placed under a new University Hearing and Appeals System. Until that point, sexual misconduct cases were adjudicated under the now-defunct Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System while other conduct cases went through UHAS.

Johnston said that in the position she has already met a “bunch of the different folks doing this work.”

“One of the things I’m really looking forward to in this position is to be part of the larger Northwestern community, as well as with folks working with Title IX issues on campus,” she said.

Wachter said having Johnston on campus will help CARE better streamline its handling of Title IX issues.

“I have one go-to person … who’s going to help with this,” she said. “It’s really good for us.”

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Twitter: @olivesocean

Previous stories on this topic:

    Northwestern hires first full-time Title IX investigator
    Northwestern to add Title IX investigator amid process overhaul
    New disciplinary rules include independent investigator in student conduct disputes