News + Insights from the Legal Team at Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein

Articles Posted in Student Rights & Title IX

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.

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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US-DOE-sealToday the U.S. Department of Education released its long-awaited regulations implementing Title IX. The regulations require a complete overhaul of how schools currently handle allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and dramatically limit schools’ responsibilities to address those claims.

By way of background, in 2011 the Obama administration issued a Dear Colleague Letter that provided guidance to schools (K-12 and post-secondary) on how to address sexual harassment. That letter was not binding law, but because the Department of Education could withhold federal funding from any school that did not comply with it, schools revamped their processes for addressing complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault to meet the standards set out in the letter. After Donald Trump took office, the Department of Education rescinded that guidance, and in 2018 issued proposed regulations that were published for public comment. Today, the final version of those regulations, and commentary addressing the public comments, was released.

What follows is a brief overview of some of the major provisions of the new regulations, which take effect August 14, 2020.

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IMG_1541In Doe v. Trustees of Boston College, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit refused to extend due process protections to private Massachusetts colleges, despite its recent holding in Haidak v. UMass-Amherst that some form of cross-examination or equivalent questioning is required at public universities. It therefore reversed a District Court decision that would have required some form of real-time questioning on issue of credibility. In so doing, the First Circuit deferred to state courts and the state legislature to define the contours of the “basic fairness” requirements for private schools under state law (having ducked the issue in a previous decision in a different Boston College case). This narrow holding underscores the need for further development of state law governing student discipline in light of significant developments in law and practice around the country since the Massachusetts appellate courts last weighed in more than 10 years ago. 

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If the volume of calls to our office is any indication, the Boston Public School (BPS) system is stepping up enforcement of its residency policies. It is not surprising that with national attention on the “Varsity Blues” scandal (involving prosecutions of celebrities who fraudulently secured their children’s acceptance to college), and increasing criticism of the lack of diversity at Boston’s elite exam schools, BPS would be looking to crack down on students falsely claiming to live in Boston in order to attend Boston schools. But parents and students have a right to understand and contests BPS’s findings in these investigations: Fifteen years ago a Massachusetts court made clear to BPS that before it could declare a student a non-resident and remove him or her from the BPS system, it had to provide the student’s family basic due process protections. Unfortunately it appears that BPS continues to ignore this court decision and families’ rights in pursuing residency enforcement actions.

What are the BPS residency requirements?Boston-Latin

Massachusetts General Laws chapter 76, § 5 states “Every person shall have a right to attend the public schools of the town where he actually resides.” The law seems clear enough, but of course the devil is in the details: what does it mean to reside in Boston? This is a question our courts have answered: in most cases, the minor student “resides” where the parent(s) who has (or have) physical custody resides. The BPS Superintendent’s Office has issued a policy further explaining what it views this statute to require, and how BPS will determine residency. Following Massachusetts court cases that have defined residency, the policy defines “residence” as “the place that is the center of [the student’s and/or parent’s] domestic, social, and civic life.” The focus of “residency” is therefore not only whether the student has a physical address in Boston, though of course that is relevant, but on where the center of the student’s life is. This focus indicates that where questions about residency arise, BPS must conduct a holistic evaluation that takes into account non-traditional family and education arrangements.

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