Sunday, November 17, 2013

Title IX Violations Alleged at Amherst and Vanderbilt

Last week, Amherst College in Massachusetts and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee were each alleged to have violated Title IX in they way they handled students' reports of campus sexual assault.

On Thursday, six Vanderbilt students filed a complaint with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.  As an example of Vanderbilt's alleged violation, one of the complainants states that the university did not take any action against the student's alleged stalker once they had pressured her into letting the school handle it rather than going to the police. That same day, two Amherst students filed a similar complaint. One of the allegations it contained is that the school responded to a report of rape by admitting the victim to a hospital psych ward while letting the accused student go unpunished. 

While Vanderbilt is a new name on the list of institutions with apparently problematic sexual assault policies and practices, Amherst has been the poster-college for this issue since last fall, when a student editorial accused the college of suppressing reporting by victims and treating accused students with leniency.  Since then, the college has been responding by revising its policies and by hiring a fill time Title IX Coordinator.  I think that OCR will look favorably on these efforts in any investigation and compliance action that might be forthcoming in response to the complaint. At the same time, the agency's involvement will likely help ensure that the changes promised by the college are both substantive and lasting. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Montana HS Football Program Mishandled Funds to Avoid Title IX

The Manhattan (Montana) School District is reportedly under fire from the state's interscholastic athletic association after officials there received a tip that the high school football coach was hiding the proceeds of a team fundraiser to avoid having to comply with Title IX. 

Over the last three years, head coach Dale McQueary has withheld $8400 from a team fundraiser (selling gift cards) in order to spend that money without authorization.  His subterfuge included getting students to falsify the number of cards they had ostensibly sold.  This financial mismanagement violates state athletic association rules that requires fundraising proceeds to be reported, so that the school district can ensure that athletic spending overall is equitable on the basis of gender. The coach purchased equipment and meals for his team from this secret stash, ensuring that his team received benefits that necessarily would have been on top of whatever the school had determined was football's fair share. 

Now that the coach's action has been exposed, the state athletic association has asked the school superintendent to present a "corrective plan" for the association's approval.  The association could also impose any number of penalties ranging from a public reprimand to suspension and forfeiture of games.  Meanwhile, however, the school district's reaction to McQueary has come under fire.  Parents successfully challenged the school's decision to suspend McQueary from his coaching position for the remainder of the season, so that he would be available to coach the team's final game.  (Really parents!?)  And McQueary is reportedly challenging the school's decision not to reinstate him as coach next year. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

More evidence at Tennessee

The attention to issues of sex discrimination within University of Tennessee athletics a year ago waned rather quickly, but the department and university is coming back into the media spotlight with news that additional. The two lawsuits filed against the university emerged after complaints of inequitable pay between employees in the men's and women's athletic departments respectively--which Tennessee attempted to justify.  The "football makes money defense" is not likely to hold up in court, though. Also not helping the Vols is the current lack of female leadership in the merged athletic department. In addition to the dismal numbers (which includes a below average percentage of female head coaches at 38.5) are the stories of former employees. It seems that the narrative about Pat Summitt being pushed out of her head coaching job will come under additional scrutiny should the lawsuits go to trial. Also, one of the plaintiffs, during the merger process, was told not to bother applying for the new merged position in media relations because the football coach would not work with a woman. Usually proving discrimination is much more difficult; but when it is announced, well....
The discrimination is quite pronounced as noted by lawyer Kristin Galles, a Title IX expert: "it's all so obvious. It's a window into the discriminatory decision-making that happens every day in college athletics. And the fact that it's happening at a school like this really highlights the extent to which discrimination is a problem everywhere."
The merger is a case study in discrimination within athletic departments.
Now, whether it actually makes it to the courts is uncertain. It would likely be a big media relations disaster for the university given what we have already learned from court filings. And if the dominant narrative that comes out is about how one of the most revered coaches in basketball was forced out of her job against her will, that will be even worse for Tennessee and call into question all the praise they have heaped on Summitt and the credit they have received for advancing women's athletics more generally.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Whitman College Debate Team Addresses Title IX Issues

The college newspaper at Whitman College in Washington state reported in some detail on some Title IX issues that have arisen in the context of their competitive debate team.  According to a recent article, the debate team was the subject of a Title IX complaint filed in August.  (The article does not mention OCR, so I am interpreting this to mean an internal complaint.) The specific contents of the complaint have not been disclosed, but the resulting investigation has prompted the university to suspend the team's travel privileges, which is a big deal to the team since it means forfeiting fall and winter tournaments.

Additionally, the team has committed itself to a plan to address what it admits is a "a culture and climate of inequality, particularly for women." The team has agreed to develop stronger policies addressing harassment and inclusion, to participate in training and education sessions conducted with an external expert on sex and race discrimination, to recruit in a manner designed to attract a more diverse team, and to support female students coming up through high school debate programs.  In addition, the team's published plan of action includes such specific measures as agreeing to conduct all official team functions in an alcohol-free environment, to provide a more formal mentoring of younger students, and even to use headphones "when listening to music that might be perceived as offensive."

When we talk about Title IX issues in the context of particular student organizations or teams, it is usually fraternities and athletic teams that we focus on. This article reminds us that those organizations do not have a monopoly on the kind of climate that supports exclusion, hostility, harassment, and even violence towards women.  It's also a good lesson how to customize a remediation plan to the particulars of an institution.  The students who developed that plan had clearly engaged in some detailed introspection into what unique aspects of their culture (e.g., music with offensive lyrics; the particular places where they recruit for members) need to be addressed. It would be great if all student groups could proactively engage in this kind of soul-searching, rather than in response to a complaint.  At the same time, the fact that a student felt comfortable filing this complaint, and that it was effective in generating this kind of response, is a sign that Whitman College is doing something right.

Friday, November 01, 2013

OCR Concludes Independent Title IX Investigation of SUNY System

In December 2010, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights initiated an independent investigation of Title IX compliance at the State University of New York System and its twenty-nine campuses, to evaluate their policies and practices regarding sexual harassment and assault.  (An independent investigation is one that is not prompted by a complaint, but by OCR's own initiative.) Yesterday, the agency announced some findings of noncompliance and published the resolution agreement that SUNY has committed itself to in order to ensure compliance going forward.

Here is a summary of some of the major compliance issues addressed in the findings and the agreement:

  • The SUNY System and some of the SUNY campuses did not have designated Title IX Coordinators, so the Agreement requires SUNY to ensure that SUNY’s administrative office and each SUNY campus has designated a Title IX Coordinator, and that notice is provided to students and staff ofthat person's contact information. The agreement requires the SUNY System to revise its grievance procedures, as well as the individual campus procedures, to ensure that these comply with the requirements of Title IX. In addition to looking at written policies, OCR examined how four of the 29 SUNY campuses handled reported cases in recent years. OCR found several problems with the System's procedures, including not expressly stating their application to complaints of sexual harassment committed by third parties, not include assurances "that SUNY will take steps to prevent further harassment and correct its discriminatory effects, as appropriate," not providing express protection against retaliation for reporting sexual harassment; failing to include examples of harassing conduct and a definition of sexual assault/violence; and failing to address interim measures for keeping the complainant safe during the investigation and resolution of her complaint, among other problems. 
  • The individual campus-wide procedures contained many of the same problems, as well as such additional issues as failing to ensure a prompt time frame for investigating complaints or a full independent investigation of a student's complaint, not using a preponderance of evidence standard for evaluating evidence against the accused student, and not providing notice of a hearings or notice of outcomes to the complaining student as well as the accused student.
  •  The four campuses selected for review of recent complaints will reexamine those complaints to determine whether each as handled according to procedures as required by Title IX.  Those schools must take appropriate action to correct the problems identified.
  • The agreement calls for enhanced training of all staff responsible for recognizing and reporting incidents of sexual harassment, and to people with Title IX compliance and implementation responsibilities, as well as campus-wide training directed at students to teach them how to recognize and report sexual harassment and sexual assault. 
  • Each campus will conduct annual climate checks and report results to OCR for the next three years.