Articles Posted in Student Rights & Title IX

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As schools revamp their Title IX policies by August 14 to comply with the recently-enacted federal regulations, information about how those policies might look is starting to come to light. In recent weeks, a number of schools have made clear that—as my colleague predicted when the regulations came out—while they will create policies to address conduct that falls under the federal aubrey-rose-odom-s9wRk6E83nc-unsplash-scaledregulations, they will also have policies that address sexual misconduct issues that fall outside of what the federal government regulates. Boston University recently offered some insight as to how it will approach sexual misconduct cases come fall. According to BU’s Title IX coordinator, Kim Randall, “[c]omplaints that fall under the new Title IX regulations, as noted above, will be investigated using the procedures required by the new regulations, which are very different from our existing procedures. Those complaints that do not fall under Title IX will be investigated using procedures similar to those currently in place.” Having two separate policies that address sexual misconduct is likely to raise a host of issues that schools need to plan for before imposing those policies on students and faculty. Looking at how cases may be handled under BU’s proposed policies illustrates the issues schools will face if they choose to have two different sexual misconduct procedures.

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US-DOE-seal-300x300The Department of Education’s new Title IX regulations, which have now been officially published, run to over 550 pages of fine print in the Federal Register or over 2000 pages in regular font. Few people have the time or knowledge necessary to identify the most important parts of the regulations, let alone read the entire document from start to finish. Without context about the rule-making process, it can be difficult to understand why the regulations are structured the way they are. But understandable or not, the regulations have significant ramifications for students and educational institutions subject to Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination in education. This post breaks down the different parts of the regulations, which parts have legal effect, and why.

Laws passed by Congress often leave details up to the agencies designated to enforce them – sometimes very important details. Title IX itself is relatively brief, providing that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” with a limited set of exceptions. It is left primarily to the Department of Education to interpret and effectuate this non-discrimination mandate.

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jonathan-chng-3R4vPrSB1c4-unsplash-scaledLast month, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) issued a letter to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) and a number of Connecticut schools notifying them that their policy allowing transgender student athletes to play sports on the team that corresponds with their gender violates Title IX, and giving them until June 4 to come into compliance with the law. The DOE’s interpretation of how Title IX applies to transgender students is an about-face from previous interpretations it has issued, and from the interpretation many courts have given to Title IX.

As I described last year, an advocacy organization purporting to focus on religious liberty issues (the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF))  filed a complaint with the DOE arguing that cisgender female athletes in Connecticut were being discriminated against under Title IX—the federal statute that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools—because transgender female athletes were permitted to play on girls’ sports teams. The ADF has filed numerous such complaints and lawsuits arguing that when schools refuse to discriminate against transgender students, they are discriminating against cisgender students.

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US-DOE-seal-300x300In a previous post, I discussed a confusing provision of the new Title IX regulations that prohibits decision-makers from considering statements by parties or witnesses who do not undergo cross-examination at the live hearing. One question that this provision has raised is what happens when the respondent’s statements are the harassment at issue? For example, in a quid pro quo harassment case if a professor e-mails a student saying “if you sleep with me I will give you an A,” and then refuses to undergo cross-examination, do the regulations prohibit the decision-maker from considering the e-mail as evidence? In a hostile environment case, if a student sends sexually harassing text messages to another student, will those messages be excluded if the respondent does not submit to cross-examination?

The preamble to the new regulations says the word “statements” has its ordinary meaning (whatever that may be), but does not include evidence that “do [sic] not constitute a person’s intent to make factual assertions.” The regulations themselves provide no explanation of what statements count as “statements” under the regulation, and the preamble does not explain how to determine what evidence constitutes an intent to make factual assertions. This portion of the preamble seems to be a botched attempt to create something analogous to the evidentiary rules on hearsay, which define hearsay at out of court statements admitted “for the truth of the matter asserted.” Under the federal and state rules of evidence, if a party introduces an out of court statement for a reason other than to prove the truth of what is asserted in the statement, it is not hearsay, and is therefore admissible. The rule of evidence focuses on how the party trying to admit the statement wants to use it; the Title IX regulation focuses on the intent of the speaker of the statement when the statement was made.

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US-DOE-sealOne of the most confusing and controversial provisions of the new Title IX regulations is a provision that bars the decision-maker from considering any statement by a party or witness who does not submit to cross-examination at the hearing:

“If a party or witness does not submit to cross-examination at the live hearing, the decision-maker(s) must not rely on any statement of that party or witness in reaching a determination regarding responsibility; provided, however, that the decision-maker(s) cannot draw an inference about the determination regarding responsibility based solely on a party’s or witness’s absence from the live hearing or refusal to answer cross-examination or other questions.”

This provision imposes a blanket ban on considering statements made outside the hearing if the party or witness does not submit to cross-examination. In real court proceedings, there is an entire body of evidence law that addresses when and how out of court statements can be relied on at trial. For example, in a criminal case the prosecution can often rely on “fresh complaint” evidence (statements a victim of sexual assault made shortly after the assault), whether or not the victim testifies at trial. If parties refuse to testify at trial, statements they previously made that are counter to their own interests can be admitted—which would allow a court to consider an alleged sexual assailant’s admissions or inculpatory statements, and also allow a court to consider any statements a complainant or victim made that suggest any part of his/her account was fabricated or inaccurate. In real court hearings, out-of-court statements are also frequently used not to prove the truth of the statements themselves, but to call into question the credibility of a party or witness. The Title IX regulation indicates that statements made by a party cannot be used even for this purpose if the party does not submit to cross-examination.
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US-DOE-sealOne of several controversial revisions to the new Title IX regulations issued by the Department of Education (DOE) is the change to the definition of “sexual harassment.” The regulations significantly narrow the scope of Title IX’s definition of sexual harassment, making it less expansive than the workplace standard for sexual harassment under Title VII and related state anti-discrimination laws.  The DOE has justified this dramatic redefinition of sexual harassment based on concerns that Title IX enforcement has been overbroad and, as a result, has applied to conduct that may implicate free speech and academic freedom concerns.  The DOE also supports the revisions by claiming that they clarify and provide more explicit guidance to schools about what conduct constitutes sexual harassment for Title IX purposes.  The new regulations may provide more clarity in the most egregious circumstances involving quid pro quo sexual harassment and conduct that constitutes sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking under the Clery Act (the federal law requiring United States colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses).  However, the revised definition raises serious questions for complainants about whether other conduct—such as some forms of physical contact, verbal sexual harassment, or gender-based (non-sexual) or LGBTQ-based harassment—will be prohibited under Title IX.

Definition of Sexual Harassment Under Prior Law

Under prior guidance, the DOE defined sexual harassment as “[c]onduct of a sexual nature [that] is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the education program, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment.”  This definition broadly included a variety of conduct that could interfere in a student’s ability to participate in school, ranging from physical conduct such as rape, groping, and other nonconsensual sexual contact to verbal harassment.

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US-DOE-sealThe new Title IX regulations that were released yesterday impose detailed requirements schools must follow to address complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual assault. Until now, under Title IX schools were left to their own devices to develop grievance procedures, the only regulatory requirement was that those procedures be “prompt and equitable.” In recent years schools’ processes for assessing complaints of sexual harassment have been the source of increasing litigation, as students who feel the disciplinary process was unfair sue their schools for violations of Title IX or state law.

As we have previously discussed on this blog, a number of courts have wrestled with what makes a school disciplinary procedure fair enough (generally addressing this question under state laws that require something like fundamental fairness in these processes.) Some courts have noted that the impairment of a student’s right to present evidence is a factor that could lead a school process to be found fundamentally unfair. In my experience, representing students in Title IX cases across the country, school policies have varied widely in terms of what evidence they will permit. While some schools have allowed students to present expert witness testimony or reports, others exclude such evidence. Some schools allow their investigators to seek out information from their own “expert” witnesses (often members of the school’s health services center), while others restrict investigations to fact evidence. Some schools allow students to submit the results of polygraph tests, others exclude that evidence.

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US-DOE-sealCross examination rights in Title IX campus cases have long been hotly contested—both in litigation challenging the adequacy of school sexual misconduct proceedings and in the public debate about how colleges and universities should handle allegations of sexual misconduct. This week’s newly issued Title IX regulations have attempted to find a middle path: they require schools to hold live hearings and permit cross-examination, but only if it is conducted by advisors rather than by the parties themselves.

Until now, the rights of the parties in campus sexual misconduct cases to question each other and witnesses  have been highly variable. (Generally respondents accused of sexual misconduct and their advocates have pushed for these rights, while groups advocating for complainants have opposed them, but it’s worth noting that the regulations grant the same rights to both parties.) State and federal courts in different parts of the country have taken sometimes very different positions on whether some form of cross-examination is required under the Constitution, Title IX, or state law, and, if so, what that cross-examination has to look like. In general, the decisions granting such a right have been limited to students of public institutions, who have constitutional due process rights that students at private schools do not have.

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US-DOE-sealYesterday, the Department of Education released final new Title IX regulations. Our office is addressing the regulations, which mandate significant changes to the way that most colleges and universities have been handling accusations of sexual assault and harassment, in a series of blog posts. This post addresses just one important issue as to which the regulations clarify schools’ options: the standard of proof that they can use to adjudicate complaints falling under Title IX.

While overall the regulations prescribe how allegations must be resolved with a fair amount of specificity, one area in which they have given the schools increased discretion compared to prior guidance is the standard of proof for resolving allegations. In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, issued in a different presidential administration, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) required schools to use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to determine whether or not a respondent was responsible for sexual harassment or assault. A preponderance of evidence means, essentially, that the evidence establishes that something is more likely than not to have occurred.

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US-DOE-sealThe new Title IX regulations from the Department of Education (summarized by my colleague here) promise significant procedural protections for students accused of sexual misconduct, and require that all potential victims of sexual harassment be offered supportive services at a minimum. Among other things, the regulations mandate that, in response to a “formal complaint” of “sexual harassment,” a university give an accused student notice of the allegations and sufficient time to prepare for any meetings, an opportunity to gather and present evidence to an unbiased investigator who must presume the accused student’s innocence, and a live hearing at which the accused student’s attorney or other advisor can cross-examine the complainant and other witnesses, among other requirements.

However, the regulations narrow the scope of Title IX’s applicability to sexual harassment significantly compared to how many institutions currently apply it. Allegations of sexual assaults off campus or outside the country, sexual harassment where the complainant is not affiliated with the accused student’s university, and acts that do not meet the stringent definition of sexual harassment in the regulations are among various situations that are left out of the procedures required by the regulations. As to these allegations, universities seem to have a freer hand, subject to the requirements of other federal and state laws.

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