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

Articles Posted in Student Rights & Title IX

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.

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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