Friday, July 27, 2018

OCR Investigation Reveals "Concerns and Violations" At Washington State University

This month the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights entered into a compliance agreement with Washington State University to resolve "concerns and violations" that were revealed by the agency's investigation into the university's handling of sexual harassment complaints.

One of the allegations against the university was its systematic failure to promptly respond to complaints as Title IX requires. So the agency reviewed over 900 files of sexual harassment cases the university responded to between 2010 and 2016. 72 of them were sexual assault matters. The average pendency of these matters from the time the complaint was was received by the university to the time of its final decision was 159 days. More than three-quarters of time, it took more than 100 days, and nearly a third were open for 200 days. While expressing concern about the university's systemic pattern of lethargic resolution, it singled out four instances where it was comfortable concluding that the delay (of 125, 139, 177, and 218 days respectively) constituted a violation of Title IX's prompt resolution requirement, owing to the university's insufficient explanation for the delays and the probability that delay contributed to hostile environment for the complainant. This aspect of OCR's findings indicate that while the agency has revoked the prior administration's interpretation of prompt resolution of sexual harassment complaints as 60 day time frame under usual circumstances, the requirement for "promptness" -- albeit more vague now -- is still good law about which OCR remains concerned.  

The agency also expressed "concerns" that the university's policies that govern the disciplinary process for sexual misconduct provide equal rights to the respondent to present evidence and receive information about the proceeding. Specifically, the agency was concerned about procedural requirements under which:
  • complainant is solicited for names of potential witnesses, though the policy does not say to do the same for respondent
  • complainant is given information that retaliation is prohibited under its policy, but the policy does not say to also give respondent this information
  • complainant is given the opportunity to provide input about the appropriate resolution path --i.e., whether the university uses an informal method of resolution instead of the formal process --  but the policy does not say to get input from the respondent.  
I agree that the first two bullet points are aspects of "equitable" procedures as the regulations require. The third one could be problematic depending on what the university does with the input it receives from the respondent. Clearly the selection of formal disciplinary procedures can't be subject to the respondent's consent; that would be inequitable to the complainant.  But such a result is not a necessary consequence of permitting the respondent to give "input" about this choice.

The university has agreed to address the violations and concerns by amending its policies and improving training. It will also address the resource deficiency that caused or contributed to the promptness violations.  It also agreed to send an apology letter to two of the complainants affected by delay.  (I've ever noticed apology requirements in resolution agreements before, so that struck me as interesting.!)