Interview with Hima Vatti About the Caltech Title IX Program

Hima Vatti

How long have you worked in the Equity and Title IX office?

I became Caltech’s Title IX Coordinator and started managing the Equity and Title IX Office in July 2019. We address issues of sexual misconduct, relationship violence, and stalking, as well as unlawful discrimination and harassment based on legally protected characteristics, including sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, national origin, ethnicity, medical conditions, disabilities, and religion.

What are some things you believe every student should know about the Title IX process at Caltech?

First, when you sit down with us, we will listen to your experience with empathy and without judgment. Whether it’s navigating interpersonal interactions, exploring sexuality, identity, and sexual activity, experimenting with alcohol, or just generally feeling unconfident, overwhelmed, or depressed; being a student can be complicated and mentally tough. We have been there, too. We also strive to be a one-stop shop. We often welcome students with concerns and questions that do not pertain to our work, but we take a strong coordinating role with appropriate faculty, staff, and administrative and support offices to ensure their needs are met.

Second, our goal is to help you understand the options available to you, both for support and for action. We facilitate students’ access to support resources because we know that even calling someone for help can feel overwhelming at times. As examples of options for action, we facilitate requested housing and academic accommodations, work with respondents to take voluntary steps to increase a complainant’s comfort in their environments, institute mutual no-contact orders, facilitate reports to law enforcement, counsel respondents to stop offending behavior, negotiate agreements where respondents undertake social and academic restrictions and in-depth coaching and training on sexual boundaries and consent, and oversee processes, including investigations, that may result in disciplinary or other corrective action. We encourage each complainant to do what’s right for them. Where a complainant does not want to take action, however, Title IX requires me as Title IX Coordinator to consider certain factors that may lead me to take action, potentially including emergency removal of a respondent from campus, to protect the health and safety of the complainant and the Caltech community. Even then, however, we fulfill complainants’ wishes as far as we are able. We strive to empower complainants of sexual misconduct by respecting their decision-making.

Third, we are aware that a fear of retaliation, whether from parties and witnesses, other peers and older students, staff, or faculty members, can make students hesitant about reporting a concern to us or exercising an option for action. Retaliation for reporting and taking action is never acceptable and is strictly prohibited by Caltech policy and the law. We talk with complainants and others about their specific concerns about retaliation, such as who might have a motive to retaliate and how, and we offer preventative strategies. With complainants’ awareness, we activate student leaders and senior staff and faculty, including Division Chairs and the Provost, when needed, to prevent retaliation. We advise and encourage students to report to us any instance of perceived retaliation.

What support do you offer to students who are victims of Title IX offenses (including confidential support)?

To address emergency situations and recent sexual assaults, we activate a crisis response process that prioritizes complainant safety and access to our Campus Sexual Violence Advocate Pilar Montenegro or one of her colleagues at our local sexual assault response center Peace Over Violence, as well as paid and accompanied transportation to the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center or the San Gabriel Valley Medical Center. We have longstanding relationships with these organizations and maintain regular communication with their leadership to ensure a high level of care for our community members if and when it is needed. The process includes Caltech’s Campus Security Response Officer Camille Saurenman, who is trained in trauma-informed survivor support and engagement and is dedicated half-time to coordinating with our office and Pilar to address and prevent sexual misconduct.

For non-emergency situations, we advise complainants about confidential campus resources, including Pilar, so we can ensure they have the option of getting support and information in a confidential space before reporting an incident to our office. Our office is not a confidential resource. We maintain a high degree of confidentiality, but Title IX and Caltech policy authorize us to share the information that someone might “need to know” in order to help carry out an option a complainant chooses or to take other appropriate action. For example, in obtaining an academic accommodation for a student, we may need to let the professor know only that two specific students should not be on a class project team together.

Also, whenever a student engages with our office on matters relating to sexual misconduct, they may bring with them a support person of their choice, such as a friend, family member, or advocate.

Finally, we offer communal support programming each month, including Trauma-Informed Yoga, Healing Art Nights, Empowerment Self Defense, and Sex Positivity and Healing After Trauma.

What are the limitations of what the Equity and Title IX Office can do?

Students express confusion and frustration about why they do not see immediate action taken against persons accused of sexual misconduct, such as expulsion, removal from housing, or limitations on access to classes, leadership positions, and social activities. This is not because Caltech does not take seriously its commitment to preventing and addressing sexual misconduct.

Disciplinary measures may be and are taken when there is a determination that a respondent has violated Caltech’s sexual misconduct policy. However, such a determination can only be made consistent with Caltech’s procedures for addressing sexual misconduct. Under Title IX, colleges and universities cannot subject their students to discipline or restrictions that impact their access to educational opportunities, programs, and services without providing them due process. Every American college and university that receives federal funding, therefore, must follow rules and processes set forth by Title IX and state law, that delineate the requirements of due process. These include an accused person’s right to be presumed innocent, to know the specific allegations against them, to know the names and testimony of the accusers and witnesses against them, to respond to the relevant evidence, and to have action taken against them only with respect to allegations substantiated by a preponderance (over 50%) of the evidence. So, an accused student cannot be removed from campus or barred from classes, activities, housing, or leadership positions, unless and until a formal determination is reached, as a result of a process providing due process, that the student violated Caltech’s policy.

To be clear, this does not mean that our office cannot take any action without undertaking these procedures. On the contrary, as described earlier, there are many supportive and informal non-disciplinary measures that we can and do take expediently to support complainants’ wellbeing.

How does the Title IX investigation process work? What kind of evidence is necessary for a proper investigation?

Here is a very high-level summary. The purpose of an investigation is to gather all available evidence relevant to the allegations and to determine whether a preponderance of that evidence (even a smidgen over 50%) supports the allegations. All participants in an investigation are treated fairly and respectfully. The role of the Equity and Title IX Office is to oversee the process and ensure it complies with Title IX and Caltech’s policy. We do not make decisions about evidence, sanctions, or appeals.

To get started, Title IX requires a student to submit a simple signed formal complaint document that outlines their allegations. If the complaint alleges conduct that falls within one or more definitions of sexual misconduct under Title IX or the California Education Code, as set out in the policy, we provide the respondent with notice of the allegations. An assigned investigator gathers the evidence, which may include: oral accounts of what happened from the complainant, respondent, and witnesses; electronic communications relating to the allegations; photos; clothing and bedding; contraceptives; and rape kit evidence. The complainant and the respondent (parties) can suggest evidence and witnesses for the investigator to consider.

We encourage students not to be discouraged by the lack of eyewitnesses or certain types of evidence. Often, there are no eyewitnesses or physical evidence. All that is really necessary is for parties to meet with the investigator and provide their account of what happened. You can also share information about “outcry witnesses,” who are persons to whom a party confided relevant information close in time to the incident, and whose testimony can be gathered as evidence.

The investigator prepares an evidence report for the parties’ review and response, and the finalized report is provided, generally, to an outside non-Caltech decision-maker who conducts a hearing. Parties are not required physically to be together at the hearing. During the hearing, the decision-maker asks parties and witnesses questions about items of evidence to facilitate their resolution of disputed facts, makes credibility determinations, and ultimately determines whether any allegations are substantiated by a preponderance of the evidence. In certain circumstances, Title IX requires allowing each party’s adviser to pose questions to the opposing party and witnesses. If a policy violation is substantiated, the responsible dean determines appropriate sanctions and remedies, and the Vice President of Student Affairs decides any appeal by either party.

What are your suggestions for students who want to learn more about and get involved with the Equity and Title IX Office?

Overall, let’s all get to know each other better! Whether it’s doing outreach, working with the Equity and Title IX Advocates and Sexual Assault and Gender Equity (SAGE) Council, holding a Title IX Summit with student leaders, conducting a lab workshop or Respect is a Part of Research event with graduate students, or talking one on one in our office, we love engaging with our students. Please invite us to a House dinner and come to one of our events!

Another great way to be involved in preventing sexual misconduct on campus is just to be a great friend and bystander who is willing to intervene in problematic situations. Stepping in to guide someone to their room, telling someone to stop inappropriate behavior, or saying “this is not ok” to throw cold water on someone speaking hurtfully are all powerful preventative tools.

Students who are interested in helping specifically with our programming and being a peer resource can contact us to find out more about the SAGE Council and our Equity and Title IX Advocates program! And we encourage graduate students to contact us to find out more about the interactive workshops we host for whole lab groups in the science Divisions to promote collegiality and respectful communication skills in the research environment.