Sexual Assault

U.S. Department of Education Withdraws 2011 "Dear Colleague Letter" and 2014 Q&A on Sexual Misconduct; New Guidance Document Issued

September 25, 2017

In a move that was foreshadowed by statements from the new administration, by letter dated September 22, 2017, the U.S. Education Department, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) announced the withdrawal of the April 4, 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (“DCL”) on sexual misconduct as well as the April 29, 2014 Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence. OCR will no longer rely on these documents in the enforcement of Title IX cases.  As reasons for this action, the Education Department cited concerns that the 2011 and 2014 guidance documents led to “deprivation of rights” for students and that the Department had not followed a formal public notice and comment process before issuing the 2011 and 2014 guidance documents.

New September 2017 Question & Answer Document Issued

In place of the April 4, 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (“DCL”) on sexual misconduct as well as the April 29, 2014 Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence, the Department issued a new question and answer document – the September 2017 Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct  – to guide institutions while the Department conducts an official rulemaking process to promulgate new Title IX regulations. This new Q&A relies in large part on the 2001 Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance and the January 25, 2006 Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Harassment.

The most notable changes reflected in the newly-issued 2017 Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct include:

  • The Department has withdrawn its expectation that investigations will be completed within 60 days. Investigations must be “prompt,” but there is no specific expected timeframe for completion. See Question 5.
  • The Department has retracted its position that only a “preponderance of evidence” standard may be used in sexual harassment and sexual violence cases. Instead, the standard of proof for finding a violation in sexual misconduct cases should be consistent with the standard the institution uses in other types of student misconduct cases, which may be either a “preponderance of evidence” standard or a “clear and convincing evidence” standard. See Question 8, fn. 19.
  • The Department emphasizes the importance of impartiality, saying that “institutional interests” must not interfere with the impartiality of investigations.  Investigators are to be “trained” and “free of actual or reasonably perceived conflicts of interest and biases for or against any party.” See Question 6. If institutions do not already provide an opportunity for parties to raise objections to investigators or other decision-makers, it may be advisable to include such an opportunity.
  • In withdrawing the 2014 Q&A, the Department has retracted its previous list of topics on which investigators and adjudicators must be trained. In its place, the Department cautions against “training materials or investigative techniques and approaches that apply sex stereotypes or generalizations.” See Question 6. Similarly, the Department announces that decision-makers must approach cases “objectively and impartially” and may not employ or rely on “sex stereotypes or generalizations.” See Question 8. Institutions should review training provided to investigators and adjudicators to ensure compliance with this aspect of the guidance.
  • The Department retracted its prohibition on mediation in sexual violence cases. The Department’s newly announced position is that mediation and other forms of informal resolution may be used to resolve any Title IX complaint if both parties voluntarily agree to participate. See Question 7.
  • The Department discourages any restriction on the ability of either party to discuss an investigation, stating that such a restriction is likely inequitable and may impede parties’ ability to gather and present evidence. See Question 6.
  • The Department has announced that the investigation should result in a written report summarizing both “the relevant exculpatory and inculpatory evidence”, that the parties should be provided “equal access” to this information, and that they should have the opportunity to respond to the report in writing and/or at a hearing prior to a determination of responsibility.  See Question 6.
  • In determining interim measures, a school “may not rely on fixed rules or operating assumptions that favor one party over another.” However, the Department also notes that, in cases of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking, colleges and universities continue to have obligations under the Clery Act to provide reasonably available interim measures to a reporting party who requests such measures. See Question 3.
  • The Department has reversed its previous position that, if an opportunity for appeal is afforded to one party, it must be provided to both parties. Now, institutions may restrict the right to appeal to responding parties only. See Question 11.

What this Means for Institutions 

It is doubtful that the Department’s change of position will require institutions to wholly revamp their Title IX policies and procedures. For the most past, the new guidance does not disallow institutions from continuing  current practices if the institution wishes to do so, and in fact some of those practices and procedures continue to be required by the Violence Against Women’s Act amendments to the Clery Act.

One notable exception is the standard of evidence. If an institution uses the higher standard of clear and convincing evidence in other student misconduct cases, the institution will need to consider the need to either change the standard of evidence in those other cases to a preponderance of evidence standard or change the standard applicable to sexual harassment and sexual assault cases.  Also, if institutions do not currently allow parties access to the investigative file, they will need to ensure that this access is incorporated into their procedures going forward.  Relatedly, the requirement that the parties have an opportunity to respond to a written investigative report prior to a determination of responsibility may necessitate refinements to some processes that utilize an “investigator model” for determinations of responsibility, as well as processes that use a formal hearing to consider evidence other than in “report” form.

More generally, the new guidance places a renewed focus on impartiality. All institutions would do well to review their policies, procedures and personnel involved in the process with an eye on this issue. 

State Law Requirements

In addition to the federal requirements impacted by OCR’s new guidance, some states have enacted laws on the topic of response to sexual violence. For instance, New York State’s “Enough is Enough” Law imposes a fairly full panoply of institutional requirements with respect to sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking, and New York colleges and universities must continue to comply with this state law despite the U.S. Department of Education’s lessening of its regulatory requirements.  Generally, New York State’s requirements are not in conflict with the Department’s newly-issued positions as articulated in the 2017 Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct.  Perhaps the most notable potential exception is with respect to interim measures.  New York State law seems to require a formulaic no-contact order that imposes on the responding party the obligation to “leave the area immediately” if in a public place with the reporting party, whereas the Department’s newly announced position is that interim measures “may not rely on fixed rules or operating assumptions that favor one party over another.” Whether and how these two directives can be reconciled will require further consideration and analysis.

The Department’s announcement makes clear that this is not necessarily the last change it will make with respect to schools and their Title IX obligations.

If you have questions about how the September 22, 2017 DCL or Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct impacts your current policies and procedures please reach out to our Higher Education Practice group.

N.Y. Education Law Article 129-B Notice of Audit Issued to New York Colleges and Universities

June 30, 2017

By Shelley Sanders Kehl, Monica C. Barrett, E. Katherine Hajjar, Philip J. Zaccheo, and Laura H. Harshbarger

Many institutions are reporting receipt of a letter dated June 26, 2017 from the New York Office of Campus Safety with an attached Notice of Audit (“Notice”) pursuant to New York Education Law Article 129-B (N.Y. Educ. Law §§ 6439–6449). The Notice seeks data submissions relating to the provision of Article 129-B and it includes 23 separate requests for information and documentation.  The response to the Notice must be postmarked no later than July 7, 2017.

This audit comes at a time when key institutional personnel, including student affairs professionals, are away from the office on vacation and some institutions are closed. In addition, the short turnaround requested (fewer than 10 calendar days over a major holiday weekend) gives very little time to gather the responsive materials, let alone review and redact them if necessary. The time period is far less than what is required to respond to a discovery demand under the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules.

We believe that it is unclear whether FERPA permits the release of personally identifiable student information to the New York Office of Campus Safety, which is an office of the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services and not an office of an education agency.

The Audit Request

The statute at § 6449 provides only for the collection of aggregate data, consistent with the statute’s emphasis on confidentiality and respect for the privacy of those involved in the process. Section 6449(3) emphasizes that, even when collecting aggregate information “the department shall not release the information, as provided for in this section, if it would compromise the confidentiality of reporting individuals or any other party….”

Eleven of the 13 requests in the Notice contain statutory references to the applicable section of Article 129-B as authority for the requested data. Two of the requests, numbers 9 and 10, contain no reference to the statute and there does not appear to be any specific section of the statute that supports the sensitive nature of the data sought in requests 9 and 10. Additionally, request number 4 seeks copies of all “no contact orders” issued by the institution, although there does not appear to be a statutory basis for such a request. Number 6(a) seeks data on all students subject to interim suspension, although that request also appears to be beyond the scope of the referenced statutory section.

Compliance Next Steps

Notwithstanding the unrealistic time frame to respond to the audit requests and credible questions about the statutory basis for specific requests, institutions must begin to prepare a response. 

Request an Extension

We encourage institutions that do not anticipate that they will be able to comply with the aforementioned deadline to contact Deputy Director Stacey Hamilton by telephone to request an extension and follow up with a written request and/or confirmation.

Prepare Materials for Submission 

Institutions should plan to submit easily accessible data such as policies, blank forms, website material by July 7, 2017, or the extended deadline, and include a cover letter indicating that, where applicable, additional materials will follow as soon as possible. In that cover letter, the institution may articulate the factors, if applicable, that make it difficult to respond within the narrow time frame allotted. One of those factors may be that the materials have to be carefully reviewed in order to redact confidential information in accordance with the privacy considerations emphasized in Article 129-B and other privacy laws.

We suggest that with regard to request numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 6(b), 7, 8, 11, 12 and 13, institutions collect the documents and data developed over the past academic year (Fall 2016 to Spring 2017). Note that for request number 12 regarding campus climate assessments, institutions should exercise care when preparing a response to prevent the identification of any particular student.

Concerns with Respect to Disclosure

Request number 4 asks for information and documents regarding each request for a “no contact order” received by the institution. Institutions may decide to provide a copy of the institution’s template “no contact order” language, rather than specific orders, together with data on the number of orders issued and the number of orders that were changed. Although the New York State Office of Campus Safety appears to be seeking copies of specific “no contact orders” that include the names of the students, it is unclear that they have the right to this personally identifiable information under FERPA.

Similar consideration applies to request number 6(a). It may be acceptable in the initial response to provide aggregate data on interim suspensions and not data that could identify a specific student. In light of the statute’s emphasis on confidentiality and privacy, and the fact that the statute refers to aggregate data, the Office of Campus Safety may not have the authority to receive personally identifiable information.

A separate issue is the scope of request numbers 9 and 10, which seek an academic year’s worth of records relating to all reports of incidents covered by Article 129-B and all records involving misconduct hearings covered by Article 129-B. These requests are overly broad, are seriously inconsistent with the statute’s emphasis on confidentiality and privacy, and are not in accord with the statute’s authorization to collect aggregate data. Institutions should be consistent in the documentation provided for each case and should make sure information does not contain personally identifiable information about students while this issue remains unresolved.

In a letter to the Office of Campus Safety dated June 29, 2017, the Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities in New York (CICU) has raised the question of redacting personal information pertaining to students.

If you have questions please contact a member of our Higher Education Group.

New York Institutions: Annual Certificates of Compliance With Education Law Articles 129-A and 129-B Due at NYSED by July 1

June 23, 2017

By Joanna L. Silver

It’s that time of year again! Just a friendly reminder that New York colleges and universities must file their Article 129-A and Article 129-B of the Education Law Certification of Compliance with the New York State Education Department (NYSED) on or before July 1, 2017.  By signing and submitting the Certification of Compliance with NYSED, each institution confirms that it is in compliance with Article 129-A of the Education Law, which relates to the regulation of conduct on campuses and other college property used for educational purposes, and Article 129-B, which relates to the implementation by colleges and universities of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking prevention and response policies and procedures.  Unlike last year, institutions do not have to submit their related policies and procedures to NYSED with their Certifications of Compliance.

To file the Certification of Compliance with NYSED, institutions must use the electronic filing system established by NYSED. The Certification of Compliance form, instructions on submitting the same to NYSED and a link to the filing system can be found at  http://www.highered.nysed.gov/ocue/Article129ABcert.html.

Please note that the annual aggregate data reports mandated by §6449 of the Education Law are not required to be submitted to NYSED at this time.  According to NYSED, information about how and when to submit the aggregate data reports will be provided to institutions as soon as it is available.

If you have any questions or need assistance with meeting the fast approaching July 1 deadline, do not hesitate to contact us.

United States District Court Enjoins Enforcement of Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students; Decision May Impact OCR Guidance on Sexual Violence

August 23, 2016

By Philip J. Zaccheo
On August 21, 2016, in a case entitled State of Texas et al. v. United States of America et al ., Judge Reed O’Connor of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction prohibiting the United States government (specifically, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education (“OCR”), the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) from enforcing the terms of the May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter issued by OCR and DOJ. As institutions are aware , the Dear Colleague Letter articulated OCR’s and DOJ’s interpretation of Title IX and its implementing regulations as requiring K-12 schools, colleges and universities to treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s “sex” for purposes of Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination based on sex, and described several areas where schools and institutions must provide transgender students with equal access to education programs and activities “even in circumstances in which other students, parents and community members raise objections or concerns.” In reaching its decision, the Court found that there was a likelihood that the plaintiffs (13 states and two school districts) would prevail on their claim that the Departments’ interpretation of Title IX is contrary to the plain language of the statute and its implementing regulations, and is therefore incorrect as a matter of law. Specifically, the Court determined that the term “sex,” as understood at the time that the statute and regulations were initially adopted, was understood to refer to an individual’s biological sex, rather than the individual’s gender identity. Perhaps more significantly, in an aspect of the decision that could impact OCR’s enforcement strategy in other areas, the Court also determined that OCR and DOJ were required to comply with the federal Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”) prior to issuing the Dear Colleague Letter, and that their failure to do so rendered the Dear Colleague Letter invalid. By way of background, the APA requires federal agencies to publish proposed rules in the Federal Register, and to provide the public a period of time to comment on them (this is commonly referred to as the “notice and comment” process). The purpose of this requirement is to enable an agency to consider the perspectives of persons or entities that would be impacted by proposed rules before they are finalized.  However, not every action an agency takes is required to go through the notice and comment process, and the APA specifically excludes from its ambit agency pronouncements that amount merely to interpretations of existing rules (rather than the imposition of new substantive requirements). In concluding that OCR and DOJ were required (and failed) to comply with the APA prior to issuing the Dear Colleague Letter, the Court noted that OCR and DOJ have applied the guidance contained in the Dear Colleague Letter as if it were binding law in a manner different than the underlying regulation had previously been applied, and that the guidance is “compulsory in nature” in that schools must comply with the guidance or be deemed in breach of their Title IX obligations. This decision is obviously significant insofar as it impacts the enforceability of the May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter. However, colleges and universities that have voluntarily implemented measures consistent with the Dear Colleague Letter may certainly continue to do so, unless they are located in states that have adopted legislation prohibiting such action.   Where the decision (or, at a minimum, the reasoning underlying the decision) may have a greater impact is in its potential effect on OCR’s subregulatory guidance with respect to institutions’ obligations to prevent and address sexual violence (e.g., OCR’s April 3, 2011 Dear Colleague Letter  and its April 29, 2014 Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence). Although the arguments for and against the validity of OCR’s substantive interpretation of Title IX are different as between these two subject areas, there are certainly parallels between OCR’s use of purported subregulatory guidance on both issues.  Indeed, the District Court noted the impact of the May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter on institutions, as evidenced by the government’s efforts to enforce its requirements, as a significant factor in characterizing it as legislative (and thus subject to the APA) rather than interpretive in nature, and OCR’s enforcement of its guidance on sexual violence is undeniable, with over 250 active investigations at more than 200 institutions currently pending. It is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, that the federal government will appeal the Court’s decision in State of Texas, and in any event OCR can be expected to assert that the Court’s rationale does not apply to its guidance on sexual violence.  However, the Court’s decision will certainly be used in support of pending litigation challenging the validity of OCR’s guidance on sexual violence, and in connection with congressional efforts to overturn that guidance.  Needless to say, the situation merits further watching.

Enough is Enough Becomes Law

July 9, 2015

By Philip J. Zaccheo

As expected, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed the “Enough is Enough” legislation into law on July 7, 2015.  As a result, the majority of the legislation’s provisions imposing obligations on colleges and universities will become effective 90 days from that date, on October 5, 2015.  Of course, institutions can, and likely will want to, make the necessary modifications to their policies, procedures and practices in advance of the effective date, so as to avoid the need to alter processes during the upcoming academic year. The provisions of the legislation requiring biennial campus climate assessments and statistical reports to the New York State Department of Education will become effective in one year, on July 7, 2016. Bond is discussing the legislation’s provisions in detail with our college and university colleagues in our ongoing statewide briefings, and will continue to do so in our Higher Education Law Report blog.

A Review of New York’s Proposed Sexual Violence Legislation – Part 3: Notice of Victim’s Rights

March 19, 2015

By John Gaal
New York’s proposed legislation contains extensive provisions dealing with victims’ rights. Specifically, Section 6442 of the legislation requires adoption of a Victim and Survivor Bill of Rights that provides for the right to:

1. Make a report to local law enforcement and/or State Police 2. Have disclosures of sexual violence treated seriously 3. Make a decision about whether or not to disclose a crime or incident and participate in the conduct of the criminal justice process free from outside pressures from college or university officials 4. Be treated with dignity and receive from officials courteous, fair and respectful health care and counseling services 5. Be free from any suggestion that the Victim/Survivor is at fault when these crimes and violations are committed or should have acted in a different manner to avoid them 6. Describe the incident to as few individuals as practicable and not be required to unnecessarily repeat a description of the incident 7. Be free from retaliation by the institution, the accused and/or their friends, family and acquaintances 8. Exercise civil rights and practice of religion without interference by the investigator, criminal justice or conduct process of the institution.

By and large, these provisions reflect best practices, and most institutions would say that their processes already include these principles.  However, there is a real and consequential difference between an understanding that an approach is best practice and a statutory obligation.  In several instances, we believe institutions would benefit from additional direction and guidance in order to fully understand what the bill intends to impose as a matter of legal mandate. For example, Item 4 above could be read as creating a “right” that victims receive from their institution “health care and counseling services,” and that these services must be “courteous, fair, and respectful” to victims/survivors.  However, some institutions do not provide counseling and/or health care services to any students, and the question is whether this legislation would require them to do so.  We suspect not, and rather the likely intent is to ensure that if these services are provided to students generally, the service providers are sensitive to victims/survivors’ needs.  Nonetheless, given the language used, clarification that the legislation is not mandating that institutions provide these services (or, in the alternative, that it is) would be useful. Items 5 and 6 are certainly understandable as best practices, but, as statutory obligations, they may cause consternation, at least without further guidance.    Is asking a victim how much he or she had to drink “suggesting” the victim is at fault (even though that information can be crucial to determining whether a victim was incapacitated)?  At what point does going back to a victim with follow up questions to make sure the institution has a complete and accurate picture of events become “unnecessary” and subject the institution to a claim that this provision has been violated?  Again, these concepts largely reflect best practices, but when included as part of a statutory scheme that presumably creates legal rights, and potential claims, their inclusion without more direction is likely to cause implementation problems. With respect to Item 7, while every institution should take steps to protect against retaliation, no institution can guarantee that retaliation will not occur, especially retaliation by an accused’s friends or family who might have no direct connection to the institution and therefore are beyond the institution’s control (other than to bar these individuals from campus, but, of course, this does nothing to stop electronic or other retaliatory communication).  Yet this provision could be read as literally requiring the institution to provide that the victim will be free from that retaliation. Finally, the reference to the “practice of religion” in Item 8 could benefit from some further explanation.  We suspect the intent is to ensure that one’s exercise of religious beliefs is not used to frustrate full access to the investigatory and adjudicatory processes, such as by scheduling an interview or hearing on an individual’s Sabbath. Section 6442 also provides that an institution “shall list the following options in brief” -- presumably as something separate from the Bill of Rights but the legislation does not explicitly so state -- and make clear that these options can be pursued by a victim simultaneously:

1. Receive resources, such as counseling and medical attention 2. Confidentially or anonymously disclose a crime or violation 3. Make a report to an employee with the authority to address complaints, including the Title IX Coordinator, “a student conduct employee,” University police or campus security, or family court or civil court 4. Make a report to local law enforcement and/or state police

In Section 6443, the legislation requires that each victim/survivor be provided with the following information (presumably upon their making a report), even though it is largely a repeat of what is in the Bill of Rights:

1. The right to notify local law enforcement or the State Police 2. The right to report confidentially to institutional officials, who can assist in obtaining services for victims/survivors 3. The right to disclose confidentially to and obtain services from New York State, New York City and County services; 4. The right to report to institutional officials who can offer privacy and can assist in obtaining resources 5. The right to file a criminal complaint with University Police or campus security 6. The right to file a report of “sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and/or stalking” and the right to consult with the Title IX Coordinator, which  reports are to be investigated in accordance with the institution’s policy and “a victim/survivor’s identity shall remain private at all times if said victim/survivor wishes to maintain confidentiality” 7. When the accused is an employee, the right to report the incident to Human Resources or the right to request that a confidential or private employee assist in reporting to Human Resources.  Disciplinary proceedings are to be conducted in accordance with any collective bargaining agreement.  If the accused is an employee of an affiliated entity or a vendor, institutional officials are to assist in reporting the matter to that affiliated entity or vendor and if necessary “assist in obtaining a persona non grata letter, subject to legal requirements and college policy.” 8. The right to withdraw a complaint or involvement from the institutional process at any time

Some of these items don’t directly involve the institution – such as the victim’s right to obtain services from the State of New York, the City of New York and “County services.”  It is not quite clear why this is made an institutional obligation, or how an institution is even to comply with it when the services referenced are not defined.  In a similar vein, Item 5 refers to the “right to file a criminal complaint … with campus security.”  At many institutions, members of campus security are not actually sworn law enforcement officers, so they are not in a position to accept a criminal complaint for filing.  Likely, this section of the legislation was intended to apply in situations where campus police/security have that authority, and was not intended to require campus security forces to otherwise purport to accept criminal complaints; however, clarification in this regard would be helpful. Of more significance is Item 6 from Section 6443, which suggests that a victim has an absolute right to report and have their identity kept confidential.  Item 8 likewise creates the impression that a victim has complete and total authority to cease an investigation or disciplinary process. These requirements create either an actual conflict with Title IX, which we doubt was the intent, or, at least, potential confusion for everyone.  Under Title IX an institution must generally defer to a victim/survivor’s wishes regarding confidentiality, but there are some instances in which OCR allows and even  expects/requires the institution  to act despite the victim’s wishes (e.g., where there is a threat to the victim/survivor or the campus community), even if doing so might require disclosing the identity of the victim/survivor despite his/her wishes.  Section 6445 replicates the Title IX considerations in determining whether to pursue an investigation despite a victim’s wishes, but it makes no mention of disclosure of the victim’s identity.  On its face, then, this legislation could be read as prohibiting disclosure of a victim’s identity even if concerns over campus safety dictate that an institution proceed with an investigation and even if the only way to effectively do that is to identify the victim.  We doubt that the legislation intends to create this conflict, but, unless this language is modified to reconcile these obligations with Title IX, institutions may find themselves wrestling with potentially inconsistent federal and state obligations. The legislation also provides certain “protections and accommodations” for victims:

1. When the accused is a student, a “no contact Order” 2. Assistance from University Police or campus security (or other college officials) in obtaining an order of protection, or if outside of New York, an equivalent order; to receive a copy of the order and have a college or university official explain it (including the consequences of a violation) and answer questions about it; and to receive assistance from University police or campus safety to effectuate an arrest if they have arrest powers or seek local law enforcement assistance if they do not 3. If the accused is a student and presents a risk to the community, interim suspension (and other interim measures if the accused is not a student but is otherwise a community member) 4. Issuance of a persona non grata letter to non-community members who are accused 5. Reasonable and available interim measures such as accommodations that effect a change in academic, housing, employment, transportation or other applicable arrangements in order to ensure safety, prevent retaliation and avoid an ongoing hostile environment

Again, while many of these elements are already “standard issue” under Title IX, there are several that are not.  Under Item 1, the legislation appears to give the person asserting a violation an absolute right to a no contact order without any showing at all other than naming an accused, which order is without duration, and which places full responsibility on the accused to leave a public place “immediately” if the victim and accused “observe” each other there.  On its face, the provision allows no regard for the circumstances of the individuals involved, or even the campus.  On a large campus where the two individuals rarely encounter each other, this provision might not be such a concern.  But what about on a small campus where the individuals share the same major?  Surely, this provision is not intended to require that upon an unsubstantiated allegation -- instantly and permanently -- the other student is barred from all of his/her classes, eating in the one dining hall or using the one library if the accuser is there, etc.  Institutions currently have the ability to evaluate the facts and circumstances and craft a stay away solution that is fair and reasonable.  It would be a difficult and unfortunate situation if this bill intends to erase any individualized consideration.  This is a provision that requires substantial clarification in order to be practicable. Interestingly, this portion of the legislation refers to “victims and survivors,” but doesn’t identify victims and survivors of “what.”  In some places, the legislation refers to victims and survivors of sexual assault (and domestic and dating violence and stalking) and in other places to victims and survivors of the seemingly broader category of “sexual violence,” and in yet other places, like here, to neither – just victims and survivors.  Again, more clarity in the final legislation will only help everyone involved.

MIT 2014 Community Attitudes on Sexual Assault

November 6, 2014

By John Gaal
In the Spring of 2014, MIT launched a survey of all of its undergraduate and graduate students (just under 11,000), related to issues of student sexual assault.  More than 3,800 undergraduate and graduate students responded, or about 35% of the institution’s total student population.  (This 35% consisted of 46% of surveyed undergraduate females, 35% of undergraduate males, 37% of graduate females and 30% of graduate males.)  As noted by MIT Chancellor  Barnhart last week in the release of the survey results, “[b]ecause the survey was not a random sample and was voluntary, and the topic of unwanted sexual behaviors is focused, we know the results reflect a degree of self-selection. Since it is impossible to tell how this may have altered the results, it would be a mistake to use these numbers to generalize about the prevalence of unwanted sexual behavior in the lives of all MIT students.”  Nonetheless, she noted, the survey “clearly tells us that, like many other colleges and universities, we face a serious problem.” While the full results of the survey are available online, some of the many interesting survey results are noted below:
  • 14% of undergraduate females indicated that they had experienced stalking, being followed and/or receiving repeated unwanted messages/texts/emails that made them uncomfortable (2% of undergraduate males reported similar experiences);
  • 10% of undergraduate females reported experiencing a sexual assault and 5% reported having been raped (undergraduate male responses were 2% and 1% respectively);
  • 72% of all respondents indicated that another MIT student was responsible for the unwanted sexual behavior (which was not limited to sexual assault or rape) they experienced.  For 98% of the females, the perpetrator was a male; for male respondents the perpetrators were males in 35% of the instances and females in 67%.
  • 40% of female and male undergraduate respondents indicated that the perpetrator was a friend;
  • While 63% of those experiencing an unwanted sexual experience reported it to someone (90% to a friend, 19% to family, 13% to medical personnel), only 5% reported the experience to someone in an official capacity;
  • Respondents who indicated that they had experienced unwanted sexual behavior were asked of any thoughts or concerns that came to mind in deciding whether to share their experiences.  Of those responding:
    • 72% did not think the incident was serious enough to officially report
    • 55% indicated that it was not clear that harm was intended
    • 47% did not want any action to be taken
    • 44% felt that they were at least partly at fault or it wasn’t totally the other person’s fault (results from another portion of the survey indicated that 20% of female undergraduate respondents and 25% of male undergraduate respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement: “When someone is raped or sexually assaulted, it’s often because the way they said ‘no’ was unclear or there was some miscommunication.”);
  • 53% of respondents (with the same percentage for both females and males) “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that “Rape and sexual assault can happen unintentionally, especially if alcohol is involved.”
  • 73% of female respondents and 76% of male respondents “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they feel confident in their ability to judge if a person is too intoxicated to consent;
  • With respect to bystander activity, 91% of females and 89% of males “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that their friends would watch out for them if it seemed like something bad might happen to them and that more than 9 out of 10 respondents  “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that most MIT students would respect someone who did something to prevent a sexual assault.  Yet 56% of respondents who knew a perpetrator did not confront that person about their behaviors or take any action, and 50% of females and 59% of males “do not usually try to distract someone who is trying to take a drunk person to do something sexual.”
As noted, the voluntary nature of the survey and its narrow focus make it hard to know why students self-selected in or out of the survey and whether it was in a way that might bias the results.  Nonetheless, the University noted that while that does mean that the rates based on those who responded cannot be extrapolated to the MIT population as a whole and cannot be validly compared to results from other surveys, it does not make the results any less accurate.  Nor does it make those results any less important. In the coming 12-18 months, either as a result of the federal government’s “encouragement” that institutions undertake surveys or pending legislation that might require them (e.g., Senator McCaskill’s Campus Accountability and Safety Act we undoubtedly will see many more colleges and universities engage in similar efforts in as they attempt to better understand the dynamics on their campuses, and how they can better address this issue.

Report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

April 29, 2014

By Laura H. Harshbarger

university-building5Today the White House issued the “first” report from its task force on sexual assault.  The Report provides a number of recommendations for colleges and universities and is a “must read” for any administrator charged with any aspect of Title IX compliance. Among the items addressed in the Report are the following:

  • Campus Climate Surveys.  The Report begins by noting that the first step in solving a problem is to identify it.  To assist institutions in identifying problems on their campuses, the Report provides a “toolkit" for conducting a Campus Climate Survey.  The Report suggests that an institution that is “serious” about addressing the problem of sexual assaults will voluntarily conduct a survey.  It also indicates that the government will be exploring legislative or administrative options to require schools to conduct a survey in 2016.
  • Engaging Men.  The Report presses institutions to engage men as “allies” in the cause to combat campus sexual assaults, noting: “Most men are not perpetrators – and when we empower men to step in when someone’s in trouble, they become an important part of the solution.”  Towards this end, the Report offers information on “Bystander-Focused Prevention of Sexual Violence.”
  • Effectively Responding.  A major component of the Report is its emphasis on institutions’ need to effectively respond to complaints of sexual assault by students.  The Report discusses a host of issues related to policy language and investigation and hearing procedures.  (The Report is detailed in this regard and contains far more than can be covered in a single blog post.  Future posts will explore specific topics in more detail.) 

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Report is its encouragement for institutions to have a confidential resource with whom victims can talk and from whom they can receive advice and support that does not require the commencement of an investigation, if the victim is not ready to take that step.   Until this point, the issue of confidential campus resources (meaning whether such confidential resources are permissible and, if so, who could be designated as a confidential resource) has been a subject of much speculation and confusion.  According to the Report, institutions should “make it clear up front, who on campus can maintain a victim’s confidence and who can’t – so a victim can make an informed decision about where best to turn.”  The Report provides institutions with sample language for a confidentiality protocol. Interestingly, this sample language indicates that institutions are permitted to have “confidential” advocates (including non-professionals) who, if contacted, would keep the Title IX Coordinator informed of the general extent and nature of the incident, but would provide no personally identifying information to the institution and would not trigger an investigation.  These individuals are distinguished from “responsible employees” who have a different reporting role and whose receipt of a report will generally trigger an investigation.  Issued with the Report is an extensive “Q&A" from OCR, which provides more detail as a follow up to its April 4, 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” and also addresses this use of confidential advocates among many other issues). The Report also includes a Checklist for Campus Sexual Misconduct Policies to assist institutions in drafting and/or reevaluating their own misconduct policies.  

  • Transparency.  The Report affirms the government’s commitment to making enforcement efforts more transparent.  Towards that end, it has created a new website, NotAlone.gov to “give students a roadmap for filing a complaint if they think their school has not lived up to its obligations.”  It also notes that OCR is strengthening its enforcement procedures by instituting time limits on negotiating voluntary resolution agreements, making it clear that institutions should provide victims with interim relief (such as housing or schedule changes), that OCR should make itself more visible on campus during investigations, and that OCR should improve its coordinating efforts with the Department of Justice.

The above merely touches upon the highlights of the Report.  Over the coming weeks, we will provide more information about the details of the Report and its accompanying documents.  For now, one thing seems clear: the federal government is signaling an even greater enforcement effort with respect to sexual assault on campus.  All colleges and universities should take this opportunity to review their current policies and procedures, in light of the Report and its recommendations, as the Report is clearly the government’s new roadmap.

Potential Institutional Liability to the Accused in Sexual Assault Cases

April 9, 2014

By John Gaal

university-building1Recent articles and postings not only highlight the continuing focus on sexual assault cases on college campuses by the victims of those assaults, but also on the threat of litigation by those accused of the assaults.  In the past two years, at least half a dozen actions have been brought against institutions by those accused, generally alleging various issues with the handling of their cases.  A recent decision by a federal court in Ohio, in Wells v. Xavier University, illustrates institutions’ potential liability to the accused. In this case, a student athlete at Xavier was accused, falsely he claimed, by another student of a sexual assault.  The University’s Conduct Board found the student responsible for a “serious violation” of the Code of Student Conduct.  At some point, the University apparently issued a statement, naming the student, and indicating that he was “found….responsible for a serious violation of the Code of Student Conduct” and that he was expelled from the University. The expelled student brought an action against the University raising a number of claims.  Among other things, he asserted that he did not in fact commit a violation of the Code of Student Conduct, serious or otherwise (he claimed that any sexual encounter was consensual), that it was apparent to the community that the University’s statement was referring to a sexual assault, and that he had therefore been libeled.  In addition, he claimed that his rights under Title IX had been violated by the University’s conduct because it was reacting against him, erroneously, as a male and in response to several OCR investigations critical of how the University had responded to past sexual assault cases involving other students. The University moved to dismiss these two claims, arguing that as a matter of law they failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.  The Court denied this request, allowing both of these counts to proceed.  Specifically, the Court concluded that the University’s statement (in the context of the student’s allegations that the Conduct Board was ill equipped to conduct a hearing on such a serious matter, that outside government authorities (the prosecutor) had questioned the outcome of this internal process, and that press coverage demonstrated damage to the student’s reputation) supported the libel claims.  As the Court noted:

[I]t appears to the Court that the [hearing body], a body well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault.  Such conclusion is strongly bolstered by the fact that the County Prosecutor allegedly investigated, found nothing, and encouraged [the University’s President] to drop the matter.  Plaintiff’s allegations suggest [the President] did not do so due to Xavier’s mishandling of other cases that were at nearly the same time, subject to investigation by the OCR.

This, the Court concluded, was enough to allow the claim to proceed.  In addition, the Court allowed the Title IX claims to proceed because the plaintiff adequately pled that the University had engaged in a pattern of decision-making that resulted in an alleged false outcome for him, in response to other OCR investigations.  The Court also found that, at this early stage, the allegations were sufficient to support a claim of deliberate indifference by the institution because, he alleged, despite warnings from the prosecutor that the allegations against him were unfounded, the University proceeded with internal hearings “with the goal of demonstrating to the OCR that Xavier was taking assault allegations seriously.” Of course it remains to be seen whether the plaintiff in this case will be able to prove any of these allegations.  But at this stage the only question for the Court was whether, if his allegations were taken as true, they would form a basis for liability, and it answered in the affirmative. This case serves as just one more reminder for institutions of the need to tread very carefully in the context of sexual assault cases.  While they must be mindful of the victims’ rights, and protecting the campus community from further acts of misconduct, they too must be sensitive to the rights of the accused.  Careful review of policies to ensure that they meet the requirements of state and federal law for both the accuser and the accused, training of those charged with applying those policies, and sensitivity to the rights of the individuals charged, are necessities.  Institutions face potential liability from “both sides” and they need to know the proper path to walk.