Department of Education and Sexual Assault/Harassment

On September 22, 2017, the Department of Education issued new guidance on Title IX. Given that the the person who received the majority of electoral college votes bragged about sexual assault, it is no surprise that the guidance appears to weaken interpretations of Title IX.

Before getting into the Dear Colleague Letter, it’s important to set the stage. When I hear people talk about Title IX and sexual assault in schools there seems to be a considerable amount of confusion about when Title IX comes into play.

Violating Codes of Conduct vs. Violations of Title IX

All schools, colleges, and universities have Codes of Conduct. These Codes of Conduct are supposed to have guidance for how to handle allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. They also include a variety of other components, they may include civility requirements, explicit prohibitions on plagiarism, dress codes, and attendance policies. The University of Washington Code of Conduct is captured in the WACs (Washington Administrative Code, the state version of the CFR). A sampling of the items included are: academic misconduct, acts of dishonest, alcohol violations, computer abuses, creating a public nuisance in neighboring communities, discriminatory harassment, harassment or bullying, hazing, indecent exposure, sexual assault, theft, and unauthorized recording. The Burden of Proof in “brief adjudicative proceedings” as well as “Full hearings” is the “Preponderance of evidence standard.”

As long as a school, university, or college has a (working) system where students can file complaints and those complaints are resolved in a timely fashion, Title IX likely will not come into play with regard to individual allegations of sexual assault.

Title IX is a ban on sex discrimination in education. This means that it is attempting to address the systemic issues. Title IX complaints are lodged when a educational institution appears to be failing to address the issues in a way that can lead to a situation where the educational institution knew or should have known that problems existed. (The ACLU-WA has a great guide that goes into more detail.) In an individual setting, a complaint is often filed when a person tries to pursue the educational institution’s complaint process and there are significant hurdles (the educational institution having unclear or contradictory methods of complaining, not providing a method of appeal, etc.) Title IX can also be implicated if there is a hostile environment that the school should have known existed. For example, if a significant number of complaints of sexual assault occur during football recruiting and the school does nothing to address student safety, the school could be liable for a Title IX violation. This means that in addition to many other claims students could file against the university, they could include an allegation of a Title IX violation, which allows for monetary damages. It also means, though in the history of Title IX it has never happened, that the Federal Government could rescind federal funding to the educational institution (the entire educational institution, not just the area where the discrimination occurred).

Understanding the Reason for the Recent Dear Colleague letter 

Sexual assault has long been an area where there is a misguided belief that people make false reports at substantially higher rates than other crimes and therefor anyone who claims a sexual assault happened must be looked at suspiciously. In addition, those accused of sexual assault (especially privileged white young men) should be given extra leniency so as to protect the harm that could befall them from a proper punishment. Proponents with this view point believe that anything involving sexual assault allegations should have to reach the highest burden of proof, the standard used in a criminal trial (beyond a reasonable doubt or as it’s labeled in a civil setting “clear and convincing”) even when not there is no deprivation of life or liberty at stake.

The new Q&A issued in connection with the Dear Colleague Letter rescinding the 2011 Dear Colleague letter is a nod towards heading in the direction of the heightened standard because it revokes the preponderance standard articulated in the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter.

Relevant Comparison of the Dear Colleague Letters 

The 2011 letter stated (Note the Department of Education appears to have removed it from the general summary, but it can be found on the archived site :

Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.26 OCR also uses a preponderance of the evidence standard when it resolves complaints against recipients. For instance, OCR’s Case Processing Manual requires that a noncompliance determination be supported by the preponderance of the evidence when resolving allegations of discrimination under all the statutes enforced by OCR, including Title IX.27 OCR also uses a preponderance of the evidence standard in its fund termination administrative hearings.28 Thus, in order for a school’s grievance procedures to be consistent with Title IX standards, the school must use a preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e., it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred). The “clear and convincing” standard (i.e., it is highly probable or reasonably certain that the sexual harassment or violence occurred), currently used by some schools, is a higher standard of proof. Grievance procedures that use this higher standard are inconsistent with the standard of proof established for violations of the civil rights laws, and are thus not equitable under Title IX. Therefore, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard for investigating allegations of sexual harassment or violence.

(emphasis added)
Footnotes referenced:

26 See, e.g., Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 99 (2003) (noting that under the “conventional rule of civil litigation,” the preponderance of the evidence standard generally applies in cases under Title VII); Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, 252-55 (1989) (approving preponderance standard in Title VII sex discrimination case) (plurality opinion); id. at 260 (White, J., concurring in the judgment); id. at 261 (O’Connor, J., concurring in the judgment). The 2001 Guidance noted (on page vi) that “[w]hile Gebser and Davis made clear that Title VII agency principles do not apply in determining liability for money damages under Title IX, the Davis Court also indicated, through its specific references to Title VII caselaw, that Title VII remains relevant in determining what constitutes hostile environment sexual harassment under Title IX.” See also Jennings v. Univ. of N.C., 482 F.3d 686, 695 (4th Cir. 2007) (“We look to case law interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for guidance in evaluating a claim brought under Title IX.”).

 

27 OCR’s Case Processing Manual is available on the Department’s Web site, at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/ocrcpm.html.

 

28 The Title IX regulations adopt the procedural provisions applicable to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 34 C.F.R. § 106.71 (“The procedural provisions applicable to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are hereby adopted and incorporated herein by reference.”). The Title VI regulations apply the Administrative Procedure Act to administrative hearings required prior to termination of Federal financial assistance and require that termination decisions be “supported by and in accordance with the reliable, probative and substantial evidence.” 5 U.S.C. § 556(d). The Supreme Court has interpreted “reliable, probative and substantial evidence” as a direction to use the preponderance standard. See Steadman v. SEC, 450 U.S. 91, 98-102 (1981).

The new regulations state:

The findings of fact and conclusions should be reached by applying either a preponderance of the evidence standard or a clear and convincing evidence standard.19

(Emphasis added).

Referenced footnote:

19 The standard of evidence for evaluating a claim of sexual misconduct should be consistent with the standard the school applies in other student misconduct cases. In a recent decision, a court concluded that a school denied “basic fairness” to a responding party by, among other things, applying a lower standard of evidence only in cases of alleged sexual misconduct. Doe v. Brandeis Univ., 177 F. Supp. 3d 561, 607 (D. Mass. 2016) (“[T]he lowering of the standard appears to have been a deliberate choice by the university to make cases of sexual misconduct easier to prove—and thus more difficult to defend, both for guilty and innocent students alike. It retained the higher standard for virtually all other forms of student misconduct. The lower standard may thus be seen, in context, as part of an effort to tilt the playing field against accused students, which is particularly troublesome in light of the elimination of other basic rights of the accused.”). When a school applies special procedures in sexual misconduct cases, it suggests a discriminatory purpose and should be avoided. A postsecondary institution’s annual security report must describe the standard of evidence that will be used during any institutional disciplinary proceeding arising from an allegation of dating violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. 34 C.F.R. § 668.46(k)(1)(ii).

Impact of the Dear Colleague letter

This particular Dear Colleague letter will likely have minimal impact. It doesn’t require schools to use a clear and convincing standard. In fact, it requires a consistent standard and educational institutions are unlikely to want to have a “clear and convincing” standard for all the discipline proceedings that come before them.

The real damage with the change in administration of the Department of Education is a regular problem that occurs are the shift of values when there is a Republican president. The President appoints people and outlines priorities that shift away from enforcement of sex discrimination. They do not diligently pursue Title IX complaints, at least not to the same extent as those appointed by Democratic presidents. If they take a Title IX complaint, they are far more likely to pursue a complaint that alleges the educational institution’s practices were unfair to the accused than the vastly greater number of complaints of the unresponsiveness of educational institutions towards targeted students. Knowing that the Office of Civil Rights is likely not going to pursue Title IX complaints often means people are less willing to file them (this is also a trend with the EEOC and sex discrimination claims in the workforce).

It seems odd that ensuring that students are not sexually assaulted is a partisan issue, but for some inexplicable reason Republican administrations actively work to weaken protections against sexual assault, sexual harassment and efforts to overcome sex discrimination as this recent Dear Colleague Letter demonstrates.

More concerning than this particular Dear Colleague letter, which allows educational institutions to use a clear and convincing standard if that’s the standard for all other violations of their codes of conduct, is that the Department of Education is exploring changing the regulations. Nevertheless, the regulations cannot rescind the law, nor can regulations overturn court decisions. While federal enforcement can be weakened administratively and that can have a big impact, Title IX is not going anywhere any time soon.