The Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action and Title IX (OEO/AA/Title IX) is entrusted with protecting a professional working and learning environment for all students, faculty, staff, patients and visitors of the University of Utah. It does this by implementing and enforcing the university’s policies on nondiscrimination and sexual misconduct and investigating complaints about policy violations.
Taking part in this process can be intimidating, but it is part of Erica Wood’s job to ensure anyone who reaches out to OEO understands all of their options and finds support.
“I am the first person from our office that would be reaching out and helping them to decide if they want to engage with us,” said Wood, intake coordinator for OEO. “Whether they reach out as someone who has experienced discrimination or sexual misconduct, or as a mandatory reporter, my job is to make sure they understand what they can do, how we can support them, what other offices there are to support them and to help them decide their next steps.”
Wood has been in her role at the U for just over one year. With a background in adult education and public health, she has worked in schools, treatment centers and various community agencies.
“I think those experiences have helped me be able to connect with people and help them when they’re making some tough decisions,” said Wood. “At the U, I love that I get to work with so many different populations and I appreciate that we are a neutral office that can support people on all sides of a complaint.”
In addition to remaining neutral, OEO is not a confidential office. In order to support survivors of sexual misconduct, they work closely with the U’s Victim Survivor Advocates and other resources that allow specialized, confidential, trauma-informed services.
“I really want people to feel supported, safe and heard,” said Wood. “I want to create a space where they feel comfortable asking difficult questions and then if they want to go through an OEO process, I want to make sure they have all the information necessary to make that decision.”
Wood is also the first person to engage with mandatory reporters. At the U, all university employees, including students in paid leadership positions, are required to report sexual misconduct to OEO. The office provides tips and training for how to respond if someone discloses an issue of sexual misconduct to a mandatory reporter.
“We are never asking anyone to investigate themselves,” said Wood. “We always encourage people to support, affirm and believe, and make sure the individual, from the beginning, is aware of their mandatory reporting responsibilities so it doesn’t come as a shock after they’ve shared their experience.”
Once an individual has reached out to OEO or a mandatory reporter has reached out on their behalf, they should expect a detailed email from OEO explaining the process and options for next steps. If they choose to move forward, they will be assigned a consultant. From there, the investigation process can take at least two months.
“Our goal is two months,” said Wood. “We take our responsibility seriously and we want to be very thorough and ensure we fully understand the situation, so that takes time.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the OEO team is working remotely, but they are still available 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday. They will work with each individual to determine whether they are most comfortable with a phone, video or in-person appointment.
Tips on how to respond if someone discloses an issue of sexual misconduct to you:
- If safety is an immediate concern, call 9-1-1 or University Police at 801-585-2677.
- Let the person notifying you know that you are a mandatory reporter and under university policy you are required to inform the Title IX coordinator of the incident. Let the survivor know that you and the Title IX coordinator will preserve their privacy and that they can file a complaint through Title IX (OEO/AA), if they wish.
- Examples of what to say:
- I am required to report this information so the university can provide support for your safety and ensure you have information about your options.
- A victim advocate or the Title IX coordinator will be reaching out to you. As part of that process, you have the right to choose to whom you may speak, what resources you use and what you say.
- The information you share with me and the Title IX coordinator is private and will only be shared on a need-to-know basis.
- Examples of what to say:
- Start by believing. It isn’t your job to investigate the issue. Suspend any judgement and avoid victim-blaming. Victim-blaming includes placing any portion of the blame, no matter how small, on the person who experienced the misconduct. Listen and use supportive phrases, such as, “I’m so sorry this happened to you” and “I want to help you get support through this,” etc.
- Refer the survivor to campus resources such as the victim advocates, the University Counseling Center or the Women’s Resource Center. They can make sure the survivor knows exactly what resources and options are available to them after experiencing sexual misconduct.
- Report the information to the Title IX coordinator in the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, 801-581-8365.