On Dec. 14, 2020, the IRS added guidance to its FAQs on the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and Emergency Financial Aid Grants under the CARES Act, clarifying that higher education institutions are not required to report these emergency financial aid grants to students on Form 1098-T.
On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which enacted the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act. These Acts make new categories of leave available to eligible employees of covered public employers as well as private employers with fewer than 500 employees. This 500-employee threshold has left many higher education institutions wondering whether their student workers may be counted as employees and whether their students are entitled to leave.
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?
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (“ICE”) latest compliance activity involves site visits of those employers who employ F-1 nonimmigrant students under STEM Optional Practical Training (“STEM OPT”) work authorization. With STEM OPT, F-1 students who have earned STEM (e.g., science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees from U.S. institutions of higher education can apply for and obtain an additional 24 months of OPT work authorization in addition to the 1 year of post-graduation OPT granted to all eligible F-1 students.
In what is likely only the first step in a trek to the U.S. Supreme Court, on September 30, 2019, Harvard College defeated a challenge to its admissions policy brought in the federal District Court in Massachusetts on behalf of Asian-American applicants. In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, Civil Action No. 14-cv-14176-ADB, U.S. District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs found that Harvard’s admissions policies did not violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or the strict scrutiny standard of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We will summarize the lengthy court decision in this comparatively short piece. The decision itself outlines extensive factual findings based on written submissions and the testimony from eighteen current and former Harvard employees, four expert witnesses, and eight current or former Harvard college students.
On September 23, 2019, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that addresses the long-standing issue of whether undergraduate and graduate students who perform services for compensation (including teaching or research) at private colleges and universities can form a union under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Under the proposed rule, student workers would not be able to organize based on the Board’s position that such individuals do not meet the definition of “employee” under Section 2(3) of the NLRA because their relationships with their colleges and universities are predominantly educational, not economic.
In the closing weeks of 2014, OCR announced its findings with respect to Harvard Law School’s Title IX compliance, as well as a resolution agreement which subjects the Law School, and the University, to monitoring for at least the next three years. As just one indication of how complicated it has become to comply with the government’s view of Title IX, in July of 2014 the University, as a whole, issued a new Title IX policy and procedures, which, despite this institution’s unmatched resources and compliance efforts, OCR still noted in its Law School findings were deficient in some respects. Highlighted below are the main areas (of more general application to other institutions) in which OCR either found the institution’s policy and procedures in need of revision or otherwise required it to undertake action. While this list does not provide an exhaustive checklist, by any means, of all the items that must be in policies and procedures in order to be compliant, it does provide a useful checklist of some of the “detail” OCR expects to find in those policies and procedures. Specifically OCR required:
An explicit statement that:
the institution has an “obligation” to address incidents of sexual harassment (which includes assault) that “it knows or should know about, even when a complaint or report is not filed,” and to respond to all complaints and reports of incidents it “knows or should know about”;
complainants have a right to proceed simultaneously with a criminal investigation and a Title IX investigation and that the University may defer its investigation for only a limited time for law enforcement fact gathering and then will promptly resume its investigation;
“mediation” (which OCR seems to view as but one type of informal resolution) will not be used in sexual assault and sexual violence cases, and students who report (the broader category of) sexual harassment will not be required to resolve the problem directly with the alleged harasser;
the institution will “take steps to prevent recurrence of harassment and to correct its discriminatory effects on the complainant and others”;
written notice will be provided to both parties about the outcome of any investigation and/or disciplinary proceeding and “as permitted” the written notice will be provided to the complainant about “the sanction imposed on a student who was found to have engaged in harassment when the sanction directly relates to the harassed student”;
Clear language that the University has an “obligation to consider the effects of off-campus conduct when evaluating whether there is a hostile environment in a University program or activity”;
That the institution maintain (but it doesn’t say for how long) “records of each informal and formal complaint, including individuals involved, investigative steps taken, documentation received, individuals interviewed, decisions reached, and reason(s) for the decision(s) reached”;
Language that makes clear that in the event informal procedures are available, “a party” may end informal proceedings at any time and move to a formal process (given OCR’s general view that both parties are to be treated throughout in an equivalent fashion, one might interpret this reference to “party” to mean either complainant or respondent, but that is not clear);
The designation of reasonable prompt timeframes for each major stage of the proceedings, including a description of factors that may extend the timeframes (such as complexity of the investigation and/or severity and extent of the alleged conduct);
The email address for each designated Title IX Coordinator;
That the institution inform the parties at regular intervals of the status of the proceeding; and
An explicit prohibition of public hearings in cases involving sexual assault or violence.
The findings letter also repeats the need for Title IX policies to address complaints brought against third party, non-campus respondents, as well as the institution’s need to check with complainants to ensure interim measures are effective and, if not, to identify alternatives. In what has become standard fare, OCR is also requiring a climate survey (the contents of which has to be approved by OCR) for each of the three years covered by the monitoring period. Finally, the resolution agreement covers training, giving express approval to in person or on line training. For staff responsible for recognizing and reporting violations of the policy, and those involved in processing, investigating, resolving and or/reviewing complaints or other coordination of Title IX compliance, training at a minimum must include how to handle complaints or other reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence; the institution’s grievance procedures; and confidentiality requirements. For all administrators, faculty, residential staff and others who interact with students on a regular basis, training must provide attendees with essential guidance and instruction on recognizing, appropriately addressing and reporting allegations and complaints (including the difference between sex discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual violence), the institution’s responsibilities under Title IX to address allegations, including the availability of interim steps, and confidentiality. New employees are to be trained within 90 days of hire. Institutions are well advised to review their policies and procedures to make sure these issues are covered.
In OCR’s April 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, OCR referenced a covered institution’s obligations in the face of knowledge of sexual harassment/misconduct and a victim’s request for confidentiality and/or that the institution not act on the report, but did not provide particularly helpful guidance on how an institution is to balance those competing concerns. Its recent Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence (“Q&A”) provide a little more help. Title IX requires that an institution with notice of sexual harassment/misconduct act to end and remedy that harassment/misconduct. Notwithstanding this obligation, OCR has made clear that it “strongly supports” a student’s interest in confidentiality and, while it recognizes that there may be instances where an institution must deny a student’s request for confidentiality in order to meet its Title IX obligations, it has now characterized those instances as “limited,” noting that even then information should only be shared with those individuals responsible for handling the institution’s response to the situation. OCR’s Q&A confirms that when confronted with a student request for confidentiality, the institution must inform the student that honoring that request may impair the institution’s ability to fully investigate and respond to the incident (including disciplining or taking other action against a perpetrator). As part of that discussion, the institution needs to explain to the student Title IX’s prohibition against retaliation, that it will take steps to prevent retaliation, and that it will take “strong responsive action” if retaliation occurs. If a student still insists upon confidentiality, the institution is required to balance that request against its obligation to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students, including the reporting student. While not required, OCR believes that this is a determination best made by the Title IX coordinator. The Q&A lists a number of factors to be considered in making this determination:
Have there been other complaints of sexual harassment/misconduct against the alleged perpetrator?
Does the alleged perpetrator have a history of arrests or records from a prior school indicating a history of harassment/misconduct?
Has the alleged perpetrator threatened further sexual harassment/misconduct against the complainant, or others?
Was the harassment/misconduct perpetrated by multiple individuals?
Does the report of harassment/misconduct reveal a pattern of perpetration (e.g., via illicit use of drugs or alcohol) at a given location or by a particular group)?
Was a weapon involved?
Are there other means of obtaining relevant information?
If an institution determines that it cannot provide confidentiality, it should inform the student prior to making any disclosure. In addition, the institution needs to consider interim measures necessary to protect the student and ensure the safety of other students. If the reporting individual requests the institution to inform the alleged perpetrator that he or she had asked the school not to investigate or seek discipline, the institution should honor that request and inform the alleged perpetrator that the decision to proceed is an institutional decision. In situations where an institution determines that it can honor a request for confidentiality, the institution is not relieved of its duty to act. There may be any number of steps an institution may take, and may have to take, without identifying the reporting individual or commencing disciplinary proceedings. For example, the Q&A specifically references increased monitoring, supervision or security at locations or activities where the misconduct occurred; providing training and educational materials for students and staff; changing or publicizing the institution’s policies on harassment/misconduct; and conducting climate surveys on harassment/misconduct. Where many students are involved, an alleged perpetrator may be put on notice of the allegations and counseled appropriately, without revealing the identity of any reporting student. Finally, even where confidentiality is provided, institutions must take other steps (beyond confidentiality) necessary to protect the reporting individual, including providing support services and/or changing living arrangements, course schedules, assignments or tests. Certainly, OCR’s recent Q&A provides clearer insight into OCR’s view of requests for confidentiality (which are usually actually requests that the institution “not do anything”). However, institutions should understand that even this amount of guidance does not answer all of the vexing questions, or insulate an institution from all possible liability, in the face of a request for confidentiality. Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20. If an institution honors a request to not proceed with disciplinary action, and if the perpetrator offends again, it may very well be that OCR (or, even worse, a jury) may conclude that the institution made the wrong call. Conversely, if an institution pursues a perpetrator over a victim’s objections, and if the victim suffers extreme distress as a result, the institution may be found at fault for that situation. In sum, while OCR’s guidance is helpful, the landscape remains a dimly lit path fraught with “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” eventualities. Institutions will need to proceed with caution and with a full view of the consequences of any decision. It pays to recall that, while OCR’s view is a major consideration, it is not the only consideration or source of potential liability or backlash. Unfortunately, real life situations rarely reduce to simple decisions.
Under Title IX, the concept of “responsible employee” has a great deal of significance, as recently reaffirmed by OCR in its Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence (Q&A), and previously reported in this blog. OCR deems an institution to have notice of student-on-student sexual harassment and/or misconduct if a “responsible employee” knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, that harassment/misconduct occurred. And, of course, it is that knowledge that triggers an institution’s obligation to take appropriate steps to investigate and, as appropriate, end and remedy that harassment/misconduct. Responsible employees also have the initial obligation to report incidents of sexual harassment/misconduct to the Title IX coordinator (or other appropriate designee). So who is a “responsible employee” in the eyes of OCR? While OCR’s Q&A may provide some clarification of this very significant issue, it continues to leave a number of unanswered questions for colleges and universities. At one place in its Q&A, OCR provides that a responsible employee is any employee:
(a) who has the authority to take action to redress sexual harassment/misconduct;
(b) who has been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual harassment/misconduct or any other misconduct by students to the Title IX coordinator or other appropriate designee; or
(c) who a student reasonably believes has this authority or duty.
(The standard provided in the Q&A actually refers to “sexual violence,” not sexual harassment/misconduct, but in a note OCR makes it clear that the same standards apply to sexual violence and “other forms of sexual harassment,” which would include sexual assault. We use the broader reference to sexual harassment/misconduct for this discussion.) This first prong of this definition seems clear, and since institutions in the first instance have the ability to determine who they give the authority to take action to redress sexual harassment/misconduct, this prong seemingly provides an institution with some latitude to self-determine who is a responsible employee and therefore whose notice of an incident triggers the institution’s obligation to act. There is less clarity around the second prong of the definition. On its face, the Q&A provides that a responsible person is someone “given the duty of reporting…to the Title IX coordinator.” This reference – “reporting … to the Title IX coordinator” – is pretty precise and could be read as suggesting that someone whose duty is to report misconduct, but not to the Title IX coordinator, is not a responsible employee. Later in the Q&A, however, there is a lengthy discussion regarding RAs (Resident Assistants/Advisors). In that discussion, OCR seems to say that an individual who has a duty to report misconduct of any kind that violates school policy (e.g., drug and alcohol violations, etc.), regardless of to whom they are obligated to report it (the Title IX coordinator or someone else), is a responsible employee. The Q&A also fails to define the “employee” part of the term “responsible employee.” Is a student, who receives free room and board in exchange for “monitoring” a floor in a dormitory really an “employee” at all (for example, for Fair Labor Standards Act purposes, that student may not be considered an “employee” despite their assignments)? Leaving aside the question of whether someone is “responsible” (discussed above), OCR’s latest guidance does not tell institutions who are “employees” for this purpose. And does OCR really mean that any employee who has any “misconduct” reporting duty is a “responsible employee”? The above referenced definition provides that someone who has been given the duty of reporting incidents of sexual violence “or any other misconduct by students” is a responsible employee. Generally speaking, faculty at most institutions are likely to have an obligation to report plagiarism and cheating. Leaving aside for a minute the third prong of the definition – someone who a student could reasonably believe has the authority or duty to act – does this mean that all faculty are actually responsible employees, merely because they report cheaters? We simply do not know. Presumably, OCR intended that an employee with broad based misconduct reporting responsibilities be viewed as a responsible employee, regardless of whether they are charged with reporting directly to the Title IX coordinator or not, but just how far this definition goes remains unclear. The third prong of the definition also raises some unanswered questions. In the first instance, the third prong suggests that when someone might only “appear” to have the requisite duty or authority to act, but really does not, an institution can protect against that person being a responsible employee by clearly indicating that he or she is indeed not a responsible employee. For example, assuming faculty at a particular institution do not have any institutionally-assigned duty to report any kind of student misconduct and/or authority to redress sexual harassment/misconduct, and therefore do not fall within the first two prongs of the definition, it might nonetheless be reasonable for a student to believe that they do, thereby making them responsible employees under the third prong. If institutional policy clearly and visibly provides that faculty are not responsible employees, it would seem that a reasonable basis to believe that they are would no longer exist, the result being that a faculty member’s awareness of sexual harassment/misconduct would not necessarily constitute institutional knowledge and trigger any obligation to act. Of course, institutions must determine whether they are better off attempting to exclude faculty (or any other group) from the category of responsible employee (in an attempt to avoid potential liability in the event a faculty member fails to act), or clearly including them in that category (to ensure the strongest likelihood of rooting out harassment and misconduct). What about an individual who falls squarely within the first two prongs of the definition? Can an institution effectively remove them from the responsible employees category, simply by saying so? There certainly are parts of the Q&A that suggest that the answer is yes. For example, the Q&A advocates for institutions to designate individuals (beyond professional and pastoral counselors) on campus as “confidential” resources for victims, which would take them out of the responsible employee category (provided the institution provides clear notice of that fact). In fact, the Q&A specifically contemplates that possibility for an RA, despite other misconduct reporting obligations which would seemingly place them within the second prong of the definition. But just how much latitude might an institution have in this regard? Can it carve out of the responsible employee category all employees who otherwise have a duty to report a wide range of other types of student misconduct? Can it effectively whittle down the category of responsible employees to just one or two specifically identified persons on campus – in an effort to limit its “knowledge” of assaults and therefore its obligation to act? It is hard to believe that OCR would want an institution to have that much latitude, but there are mixed messages from the Q&A as to just what is permitted and what is not. Once it is finally determined who is a responsible employee, and that person becomes aware of sexual harassment/misconduct, the institution is responsible for ensuring that he or she reports to the Title IX coordinator (or other appropriate person) all relevant details about the alleged harassment/misconduct that have been provided. This includes the names of the alleged perpetrator (if known), the student who experienced the alleged harassment/misconduct, other students involved in the incident, as well as relevant facts such as date, time, and location. In addition, colleges and universities are required by OCR to make clear (or as clear as they can, given the ambiguities in the Q&A) to all employees and students which staff members are responsible employees, both so students can make informed decisions about in whom to confide and so employees can understand their reporting obligations. Finally, this newest OCR guidance states that an institution needs to instruct responsible employees that, when talking to a student who might reveal information which he or she may wish to keep confidential, the responsible employee must in effect “Mirandize” the student before that information is revealed. That is, the responsible employee needs to (1) warn the student of the employee’s obligation to report any information the student reveals to the Title IX coordinator, (2) explain to the student his or her option to ask that the institution nonetheless consider maintaining the confidentiality of that information, but that the institution may not be able to guarantee confidentiality (more about this in a future post), and (3) advise the student of the ability to instead share this information with counseling, advocacy, health, mental health or other sexual assault-related resources who are not obligated to report it to the Title IX coordinator. Clearly, a basic task for every institution is to make a reasoned determination concerning who it considers id a responsible employee (and who it does not) and to make that determination well known. Then, it is incumbent on the institution to make sure that responsible employees fully understand – and comply with – their obligations. No doubt the intent of OCR’s Q&A was to provide clarifying and useful guidance to institutions. Regrettably, as has often been the case with OCR guidance in this area, the Q&A leaves a number of unanswered questions.
As reported last week, The White House Task Force To Protect Students From Sexual Assault issued its first report. Simultaneously, OCR issued Q&As on Title IX obligations and related documents to help guide institutions and to reinforce the government’s interest in pushing colleges and universities to better respond to campus sexual assaults. The effort to protect students on college and university campuses from sexual assaults is unquestionably a good thing, although one might question some of the government’s tactics.Towards the end of last week, the Department of Education turned the heat up on institutions. On May 1, DOE made public a list of 55 higher education institutions currently the subject of OCR Title IX investigations, both complaint and compliance driven. Bear in mind that these are simply situations in which a complaint has been filed, whether warranted or not, or the institution is the subject of a compliance review. While the DOE’s press release stated that an “appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law,” it seems that this latest tactic is intended as the equivalent of a “perp walk” designed to put pressure on institutions by making them look bad, although they have not been found in violation of the law in any way. Although OCR noted that the list will be updated regularly, thus sending a message well beyond the 55 institutions named, it is notable that OCR did not indicate any intention to publicize, in a similar manner, those institutions cleared of any allegations of misconduct. This current wave of action to attack sexual assault has not been limited to the federal government. Last week the Connecticut House and Senate both passed legislation dealing with campus sexual assaults. Under this legislation, both public and private colleges and universities in Connecticut will be required, among other things, to:
provide free counseling services to students who have been sexually assaulted, whether on or off campus,
provide annual prevention and awareness programs for students and employees,
provide concise written notice of a student’s right to seek disciplinary action in the event of a sexual assault and of the availability of any free healthcare and counseling related to an assault,
enter into an agreement with at least one community-based sexual assault crisis service and a domestic violence agency to provide free help to students, and
provide legislators on an annual basis with the institution’s sexual assault policies, the number and type of risk reduction programs in place, the number of incidents of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking, the number of disciplinary cases related to sexual assaults and their outcomes.
Time will tell if other states will follow suit with their own unique brand of campus sexual assault legislative oversight.In the meantime, institutions will need to prepare for the possible negative public image impact of OCR’s decision to publicize any complaint or compliance review, regardless of outcome or merit.
Today 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.