Articles Posted in Student Rights & Title IX

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Whether you are heading off to your first year of college, or are returning for your fourth (or sixth, or ninth) year of higherbeer-pong education, you are likely aware that sexual assault prevention is a big issue on college and university campuses today. We represent students—both those who have experienced sexual assault or misconduct and those accused of sexual misconduct—in campus proceedings at colleges and universities around the country. Here is some information that all students should know before heading back to campus.

What is Title IX, and What Does It Mean for my School?

Title IX is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education. In addition to ensuring that there are equal athletic and educational opportunities for all students, it also requires schools to address and take steps to prevent sex-based discrimination on campus, including sexual harassment and sexual assault. If a school knows of sex-based discrimination on campus and does not adequately respond to it, a court may find the school has violated Title IX.

In practice, what that means for your school is that it is obligated to address complaints of sexual harassment, dating violence, and sexual assault if it learns of them. Almost every school has set up a Title IX office solely to address these kinds of complaints. The job of this office is to resolve those complaints – which often but not always entails a disciplinary process against the accused student.

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massachusetts-69816_1920Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit released its second decision in the last few years addressing campus sexual misconduct disciplinary proceedings. In Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the First Circuit largely found for the University, concluding, as my colleague recently discussed, that the procedures it applied in Mr. Haidak’s case were sufficient to pass constitutional muster.

In writing about these campus disciplinary proceedings, the court glossed over the factual realities of these cases and made some concerning statements that—if schools were to adopt them as policy—would undermine students’ rights.  

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On August 6, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit released a decision that ca1strengthens the due process requirements applicable to discipline at state universities, but does not go as far as other courts such as the Sixth Circuit, which has forcefully affirmed a due process right to cross-examination on issues of credibility. In Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the First Circuit largely found the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) procedures adequate as they were applied in the specific case before it, but adopted a requirement for some form of real-time cross-examination sufficient to address the key facts and issues in a student’s case. The court also emphasized the need for a state college to provide a student with due process for even an interim suspension – and only in the case of a real emergency can that process occur after the suspension. 

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writing-1149962_1920In our last post, we assessed the provisions and potential impacts of two of the campus sexual misconduct bills that will be considered by the Massachusetts Legislature in an upcoming hearing on April 9. In this post we are focusing on several of the other bills that will be up for debate, including one that would require a school to label a student’s transcript as soon as he or she is accused of certain criminal acts and another that would mandate sexual harassment training for all Massachusetts college and university students, faculty, and staff.

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government-buildings-516081_1920There are six bills addressing campus sexual assault that will be discussed at a public hearing of the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education next week. Two years ago, the Massachusetts legislature held hearings on a collection of bills that addressed different aspects of the issue of campus sexual assault. Although the Senate later passed a bill dictating how schools should handle sexual assault allegations, that bill never made it to the Governor.

The various bills have been edited and re-filed and will be heard at a public hearing on April 9. Both in testimony to the Joint Committee on Higher Education and on this blog we laid out concerns with the previous versions of these bills, having to do with lack of transparency, notice, and ensuring that complaining and responding students had access to the same resources.

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On November 16, 2018, the U.S. Department of Education released draft regulations that would significantly reform Title IX requirements for schools in dealing with sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus. Naomi Shatz has tweetstormed initial summaries and analysis of key features of the draft regulations. There is a lot to unpack in the regulations, and we will undoubtedly have more to write about them in the coming weeks. They also may change before they become final; this publication is the start of a 60-day public comment period, after which the Department of Education must reconsider and respond to input from the public before the regulations become effective. However, once the regulations are finalized, they will have the force of law and will be difficult to change, so it is very important to focus on what is in the draft now.

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college-building-2-1In recent weeks, potential new draft regulations from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have garnered considerable media attention, despite not being yet released. Last week the full text of those draft regulations was leaked to the public. Among several other notable changes to current practice at most colleges and universities (detailed in my colleague Naomi Shatz’s tweets after we first got our hands on the draft regulations), the draft would require a significant increase in respondents’ rights to cross-examine their accusers and other witnesses. Meanwhile, in the past months, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has focused in a string of decisions on whether respondents in Title IX cases at public schools have a due process right to confront and cross-examine their accusers, and recently issued a new decision, in Doe v. University of Michigan  making the strongest statement we have seen yet from any court of appeals in favor of cross-examination. The regulations and the Sixth Circuit’s decision are both plainly intended to increase the rights of accused students, yet they offer schools very conflicting guidance about how to do so. In addition, the regulations could have significantly unintended consequences in practice.

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Coffee-Meet-UpLabor Day Weekend is upon us and millions of college students across the country will be beginning their fall terms, including many first-year students who have just become adults and have spent little time away from their families or communities. If you are a parent of an incoming student, you may be helping your child pack, stock up on ramen, move into their dorm, and get oriented to a sprawling and likely overwhelming college campus. While you are preparing your child for a new stage of their life and hopefully independence and responsibility, this is the time to familiarize yourself with the college’s policies on sexual assault, harassment, and other misconduct. While the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is working on passing new regulations related to sexual misconduct on campus (for a summary see one of our lawyer’s comments here)no formal changes have taken effect to date and therefore it is important to ensure that your child is aware of their school’s specific rules and knows their rights and responsibilities, as well as the risks of any criminal exposure that may arise from sexual behavior.  Continue reading

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Until this spring, the First Circuit had not decided many major student discipline cases in over thirty years.  In June, the Court handed down its long-awaited decision in Doe. v. Trustees of Boston College.

Boston-CollegeThe case concerns an alleged sexual assault that took place on a dance floor in 2012.  A female student – “A.B” – was assaulted at a party on a boat sponsored by a Boston College student organization; she felt someone put fingers up her skirt and touch her without her consent.  She identified Doe as the assailant.  But Doe denied the charges – and eventually presented video evidence that suggested another student – J.K. – had committed the act.  Indeed, the video was so convincing that the Middlesex County District Attorney dropped the criminal charges against Doe.  Yet, after a series of procedural irregularities, a Boston College disciplinary panel found Doe responsible for the assault and he was suspended from the college. Two years later, the school agreed to review the case after his parents asked the President to look into it, but ultimately declined to change its conclusion.  Doe and his parents sued.

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AllegationBrown-Doe-images of sexual assault on campus involving students of different colleges are very common. My experience representing students involved in such proceedings has typically been that if a college is presented with an allegation that one of its students has sexually assaulted, harassed, or abused another person, the college will investigate that allegation, regardless of whether the complainant is a student at that college, an alumnus of the college, or an individual with no connection to the institution. (This can vary depending on the terms of the college’s Title IX policy, but most policies at least allow for such investigation.) The college’s ability to provide complainants who are not its students with some types of help may be limited—it probably cannot meaningfully offer academic accommodations, for example—but it can and (again, in my experience) usually does proceed to investigate the allegations and mete out any discipline that it concludes is warranted. A ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in one recent lawsuit suggests that there are limits on colleges’ obligations to complainants in such situations, but in my view it is unlikely to result in dramatic changes in most colleges’ practices.

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