Title IX

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  • The Department has withdrawn its expectation that investigations will be completed within 60 days.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.