By Mary Kate McGrath - May 18, 2020
Colleges and universities across the United States have halted in-person classes, directed students to leave dormitories, and transitioned to a remote learning model in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, with only essential safety and facilities management crews on campus and all other higher-ed employees working remote, officials are learning to manage administration for current and prospective students. One key challenge administrators face will be management of Title IX policy amid coronavirus-related shutdowns.
Title IX cases remain open despite COVID-19, meaning that coordinators and investigators must continue to fulfill their obligation to students by processing complaints. Managing Title IX policy amid shutdowns will be a complicated process, with the coronavirus pandemic presenting significant obstacles to the “prompt and equitable” investigations college or university campuses are required to conduct by law, as per Inside Higher Ed.
For students who are victims of sexual misconduct on campus, delayed investigations can prolong trauma and put cases at risk of never being resolved. On the other hand, defendents of the accused assert telephone or teleconferences put their student clients at a disadvantage, as nonverbal cues are often used as a cornerstone of a defense case.
Administrators will have to weigh whether or not open investigations into sexual assault or harassment complaints can or should proceed without in-person hearings, evaluating capacity for conducting remote interviews, confidential report or evidence sharing, and virtual advocacy or counseling for involved parties. Many colleges or universities are balancing a legal obligation to address discriminatory behavior or harassment with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, and since each institution has unique student-guidelines, all institutions should first and foremost consult with legal counsel regarding active complaints.
Each college and university will need to determine whether or not Title IX complaints can be processed through a virtual trial, or if the proceedings will need to be delayed or postponed. Administrators should be consistent about planning and messaging for Title IX matters. If an institution is not consistent in their approach, it can have negative impact on both victim and accused.
For example, one recent graduate of a college in Boston reported filing a complaint in November against a male student at a college in Illinois. Investigators conducted multiple meetings over Skype, only to reverse the decision following the shelter-in-place order, citing the student handbook’s requirement of an “in-person hearing,” as per Inside Higher Ed. Due to the inconsistency, the student planned to drop the case, leaving the proceedings without a resolution for both parties.
Prolonging Title IX investigations can have an adverse effect on victims, but it can also negatively impact respondents, as some institutions put holds on diplomas or transcripts of students involved in sexual misconduct proceedings, as per Inside Higher Ed. This can be problematic for graduating seniors, or those applying to graduate school. Both parties in most Title IX cases are likely amenable to the process being completed as quickly as possible, and if colleges and universities are able to assess the process, follow virtual proceeding best practices, and communicate with all involved, continuing to process these complaints should be possible.
Many colleges and universities already have remote investigation capability, meant to support investigations for students studying abroad or investigations conducted by outside investigators, according to Campus Safety Magazine. Administrators should consult with IT departments and the institution’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) to determine which tool will assist the process best, and to assess any security or privacy risks that might emerge. Tools such as Skype, WebEx, and Zoom allow administrators to conduct remote interviews with video conferencing, allowing investigators to establish rapport and assess body language.
Campus Safety Magazine recommended four best practices for investigators conducting remote interviews, which include:
Control the environment, dress professional, preview interviewees view of workspace, and secure any confidential documents ahead of time.
Ensure privacy, to facilitate a confidential conversation, inform participants ahead of the interview to find a private location and make sure investigators will not be interrupted during the process.
Know your technology, including capability to mute, share screen, switch outputs etc.
Include a support person, either an IT employee or CIO, to troubleshoot any issues that may arise during the interview.
The publication also published a document titled, “10 Tips for Title IX Coordinators During the Coronavirus Crisis”, which outlines other best practices for addressing open complaints during this unusual time. The document recommends level-setting investigators on use of technology tools, being knowledgeable about all virtual tools counseling or advocacy teams will deploy, creating a protocol for sharing reports and evidence virtually, and planning to over-communicate with all parties, support workers, and witnesses.
Establishing a clear, cohesive interim policy is essential for management of Title IX cases as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt on-campus procedures. Students on both sides of the case will be eager for a quick, fair resolution, and it’s important to communicate that your institution is taking all steps possible to ensure complaints are addressed and processed as quickly as possible. Leverage a mass notification system with targeted alerts to inform all students, faculty, and staff of policy changes during the transitory period, and any lasting Title IX policy update for the next school year.
In May, the Department of Education passed significant Title IX changes to how colleges and universities must handle sexual assault and sexual harassment reports, requiring colleges to hold live-hearings and allow cross-examination in adjudicating sexual misconduct complaints. These updates might complicate upcoming remote interviews or halt hearing processes, and should be evaluated by college or university legal representation.
New legislation will also narrow the scope of complaints a college or university is allowed to investigate, as per Chronicle of Higher Ed. The Federal Government mandated that under Title IX, sexual harassment must meet the definition of “unwelcome content” that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to education.” Administrators must work quickly to reshape sexual misconduct policies in the wake of the changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, and will be required to implement the new protocol before August 14.
A campus safety app can be a valuable asset for keeping all students, faculty, and staff updated on student guidelines for filing a Title IX complaint. The app contains access to student guidebooks or guidelines, including sexual misconduct policy that is up to date. A directory can also help students identify which department or officials to bring a complaint to. Each institution will have to process Title IX cases in a manner that is compliant with the Department of Education’s guidance. This process can be streamlined by keeping students informed of procedures ahead of filing, allowing administrators to communicate a consistent and fair protocol as best as possible.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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