The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a “Fact Resource” on Oct. 4, 2022 reaffirming legal authority that Title IX protects both students and employees from discrimination based upon pregnancy and related conditions. While the new resource is broadly worded, the timing and presentation suggests that it is intended to signal an enforcement agenda targeted toward the protection of abortion rights for students and employees of educational institutions.
In a decision issued last week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled that a public institution conducted an unreasonable “search,” in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, by performing a visual inspection of a student‘s remote testing location prior to an online exam.
As is customary, the institution in question (Cleveland State University) reserved the right to employ a variety of safeguards designed to ensure integrity in online academic exercises. Among other things, the University provided instructors discretion to require students to show their surroundings via webcam before, during or after an exam, in order to demonstrate that they were not using prohibited resources or assistance. The student in question was scheduled to take a chemistry examination and was notified approximately two hours prior to the start of the exam that the proctor would be checking his surroundings by visual observation. The proctor did so at the start of the exam, asking the student to perform a room scan that lasted “less than a minute, and as little as ten to twenty seconds.” The student complied with the request, but subsequently sued the University claiming that he had “confidential settlement documents” in the form of IRS forms 1099 in his room that could not be secured prior to the examination (the proctor testified that she did not see any tax documents during the room scan).
In a somewhat surprising decision, the court held that the room scan was an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Under applicable precedent, whether a particular search is reasonable “is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual‘s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests."1 While acknowledging the University’s interest in ensuring academic integrity, the court nevertheless found the room scan requirement to be unreasonable, among other reasons because the instructor announced the requirement after the start of the course (theoretically leading the student to believe he would not be subject to a room scan until shortly before the time of his test), and because other students could see the room scans. The court also expressed skepticism that the room scans would be effective in preventing cheating, and asserted that the University had other procedural safeguards available to guard against cheating, such as “employing proctors to monitor for suspicious movement or using proctoring programs that perform functions like preventing students from accessing the internet or other programs during the test, recording students during tests, and using artificial intelligence to detect suspicious movement or plagiarism.” With apparent disregard for pedagogical considerations and academic freedom, the court also noted that alternatives to tests, such as projects or papers, might minimize or eliminate the need for remote room scans. In consideration of these factors, the court determined that the student’s privacy interests outweighed the University’s interests in enabling the proctor to view his room and concluded that the room scan was unconstitutional.
This decision is perplexing on many levels, most significantly in that it apparently reflects a determination that conducting a visual inspection of the testing environment for as little as ten seconds after having given a student two hours’ advance notice to secure items he did not wish to be viewed, in the interest of academic integrity, was unreasonable. That said, the likely impact of this decision outside its immediate context, if any, is questionable. For example, it should have no impact on private institutions, and much of the court’s reasoning seems to have revolved around the specific facts of the case, including a perceived lack of consistency in messaging to students as to whether room scans would be required, and the degree of advance notice provided to students. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that early and consistent messaging in this regard, including timely guidance to students that they should secure any items they do not wish to be viewed, will protect against similar results in other contexts.
Announcing it as a commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the enactment of Title IX (though anticipated for the past 18 months), the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced sweeping proposed amendments to the Title IX regulatory scheme that went into effect less than two years ago.
A recent finding by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that a college failed to accommodate a pregnant student is a pointed reminder of the obligation of colleges and universities to fully and carefully address accommodation requests from pregnant students.
On May 4, 2022, Gov. Hochul signed into law A.06938B, which amends New York State Education Law by adding a new Article 13-C; §640, which prohibits degree-granting institutions and licensed private career schools from withholding transcripts of students who owe a debt to the institution. It is also unlawful under §640 for institutions to condition the release of a transcript upon the student’s payment of the debt. Finally, institutions may not charge a higher fee or provide less favorable treatment of a transcript request because a student owes a debt to the institution.
While “Clery reporting requirements” and “compliance with the Clery Act” are familiar terms to staff and faculty at colleges and universities, many are unsure exactly what the Clery Act requires and why it matters. Here, in question-and-answer format, is a refresher on the Clery Act’s history, purpose and requirements.
What student health information may be shared with whom in the event a student tests positive for the virus is one of the many interconnected issues for colleges and universities related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spring break invites faculty travel to conferences abroad, student study trips abroad and student dispersal to their home locations. What should a higher education institution do to prepare for this period of increased travel?
On September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s formal plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) program. The rescission of DACA and the benefits afforded by the program will affect individuals employed by and enrolled in colleges and universities across the country.
DACA, implemented in 2012 through an executive order by former President Barack Obama, allows illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action. In addition, DACA recipients are eligible to receive an employment authorization document (“EAD”), which allows them to work legally in the U.S., and advance parole, which allows them to re-enter the U.S. following a trip abroad. Currently, about 800,000 individuals are participating in the DACA program. The Trump administration’s decision to phase out the DACA program will end the work authorization and advance parole of DACA beneficiaries and potentially open the doors for their deportation.
The DACA program is scheduled to end in six months, on March 5, 2018. As of September 5, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) no longer accepts new EAD or advance parole applications from DACA beneficiaries. In addition, any pending advance parole applications are going to be closed by DHS and returned to the respective DACA applicants. Individuals whose EADs expire prior to March 5, 2018 may apply for a two-year renewal, but their applications must be received by the DHS on or before October 5, 2017.
Institutions’ human resources offices may wish to identify those individuals who are employed pursuant to DACA by reviewing the I-9 forms and copies of the I-9 documents (if any) already on file. DACA beneficiaries will have EADs with a “C33” category and will remain employment authorized until the expiration date on their EADs. The employment authorization of these individuals must be reverified by completing Section 3 of Form I-9 no later than the expiration dates on the EADs. Individuals who are unable to provide evidence of their continued employment authorization can no longer be employed at the college or university. With respect to those DACA employees whose EADs expire prior to March 5, 2018, colleges and universities may choose to provide a gentle reminder that renewal applications for a two-year extension must be filed and received by the DHS on or before October 5, 2017.
With respect to DACA students, faculty or staff who were planning to study abroad or attend a conference or other event outside the U.S., colleges and universities may choose to advise these individuals to change their plans and remain in the U.S., even if they have advance parole that has not yet expired since USCIS retains the authority to revoke or terminate an advance parole document at any time.
As expected, the Trump administration’s decision to phase out the DACA program is already facing challenges in courts. On September 6, fifteen states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit in the federal court for the Eastern District of New York opposing DACA’s termination. There also is the possibility that Congress will pass a bill to either reinstate the DACA program or replace it with a similar program. We will provide you with updates regarding the status of the DACA program as they become available.
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.
Apparently prompted by allegations from students and advocates, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is reportedly directing an audit, to be conducted by representatives from the New York State Department of Education, Department of Health, Office of Victim Services and State Police, of institutions’ compliance with Education Law Article 129-B, the so-called “Enough is Enough” campus sexual violence legislation. According to published reports, between now and September 1, the audit would review institutional policies and websites to determine compliance with, among other things, the statutory requirements for adoption of policies and disclosures to students. A second phase would then examine institutions’ handling of individual cases. The precise details of these reviews are as yet unknown, but the second phase has the potential to equal or exceed, in scope and depth, reviews conducted by the Office for Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education under Title IX. OCR reviews are, of course, typically prompted by individual complaints. By contrast, the Governor’s audit program, if it proceeds as reported, would apparently target all colleges and universities in New York State, essentially subjecting them to a similar process even in the absence of particular concerns or complaints. Pursuant to Education Law Section 6440(3), the Education Department had previously indicated its intent to conduct “random audits, at any time after September 1, 2016” to monitor compliance with the statutory requirements. This initiative, however, appears to be more comprehensive in terms of its coverage of institutions throughout the State, seemingly in conflict with the statutory dictate that audits be conducted “by random selection.” Needless to say, the roll-out and implementation of this initiative bear watching.
On October 28, 2016 the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. This case is about whether a Virginia School Board’s policy limiting students’ bathroom access to facilities that correspond to students’ biological gender is discriminatory. The case was brought by the ACLU, on behalf of transgender student G.G., alleging the School Board’s policy violates G.G.’s rights under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and is inconsistent with U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) guidance stating that school districts should treat students consistent with their gender identities. While the Fourth Circuit held that OCR guidance, while not law, deserved deference on this issue it stopped short of holding that the School Board’s policy violates Title IX’s protections against sex discrimination. On August 29, 2016, the School Board petitioned the Supreme Court for review. In response the Supreme Court stayed the Fourth Circuit’s decision, thus keeping the School Board’s policy in place while it considered whether it would review the case. A decision by the Supreme Court here will not just determine whether this Virginia school board’s policy violates federal civil rights laws. A decision will impact similar transgender policies, laws, and cases under scrutiny in North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere. This case is further meaningful for the education community as it may provide clarity on the scope of Title IX’s sex discrimination protections and the appropriate weight to afford OCR interpretation of Title IX and other statutes. For more background on Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. see our previous post here.