Thursday, December 11, 2014

OCR Finds Title IX Violations at SMU

Today the Office for Civil Rights announced the conclusion of its investigation into Title IX complaints regarding Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The agency investigated SMU's policies and procedures for handing reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence after receiving complaints from members of the university community alleging problems in their cases. One of those complaints alleged that the university did not provide a "prompt and equitable" response to a law student who alleged in 2010 that a professor had been making sexually harassing comments to and about her. While ultimately OCR agreed with SMU's determination that the professor's comments, while unprofessional and inappropriate, did not rise to the level of actionable sexual harassment, it noted procedural violations that the university committed in handing the matter, including an egregious four-month delay and its failure to notify the student of remedial action that it imposed on the professor. The other complaint OCR had received was from a student victim of sexual assault. In his case, the SMU police responded by investigating and arrested the assailant, and the university  implemented a no-contact order to keep him away from the victim. Yet, the university did not conduct a Title IX grievance proceeding and ignored the victim's repeated complaints that he was being harassed by other students in retaliation for his complaint.

Additionally, OCR's review of SMU's existing Title IX policy turned up a number of "paper" violations that SMU is obliged to fix to ensure that the process for handling reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence is compliant going forward. Specifically, SMU is obligated to amend its Title IX policy by providing time frames for the appeal process, ensuring that the parties understand that if they first choose an informal process (like mediation) they can change to a formal process at any time, and to protect the parties from having evidence of past relationships come up in a hearing. Also, SMU has to publish the Title IX Coordinator's contact information.

When the agency reviewed SMU's files on sexual harassment/sexual violence complaints it received in the recent past, it found many of them were incomplete and did not contain documentation sufficient to demonstrate that whether SMU had satisfied its obligation to provide a prompt and equitable response. Accordingly, OCR required SMU to review sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints it has received in the last two years and self-evaluate Title IX compliance in those cases. The university is required to "take action" to address any problems that it finds.

Last, it must reimburse the student who reported the sexual assault for his educational expenses for the semester affected by the incident and for his counseling expenses to date. 

While OCR has over ninety investigations still pending into alleged Title IX violations regarding universities' responses to sexual harassment and sexual violence, it has resolved a handful of them this year, including Ohio State, Princeton, and Tufts in addition to SMU.