Education Secretary Signals Shift in Title IX Policy for Dealing with Sexual Misconduct Allegations

On September 7, 2017, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos announced a marked policy shift in how the Department of Education will approach Title IX enforcement with regard to sexual misconduct. DeVos indicated that the Department plans to withdraw the controversial Dear Colleague Letters issued during the Obama administration. Instead, the Department will issue formal regulations that will establish a new Title IX framework for educational institutions investigating and responding to sexual misconduct allegations. The full text of Secretary DeVos’s speech can be found here.

Title IX has been a dominant topic in higher education since 2011, when the Obama Administration issued the “Dear Colleague Letter” explaining that a failure to adequately address sexual misconduct on campus constituted discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs under Title IX.[1] Among other things, the Dear Colleague Letter set forth how schools should respond to sexual misconduct, dictated specific procedures schools must follow to investigate and adjudicate such misconduct, and established various other requirements such as climate surveys, standards of proof, and survivor sensitivity. The Letter made clear that a failure to meet these expectations, and the expanded guidance issued by the Department in 2014, could result in a loss of federal funding, and thus had a swift and substantial impact on the way educational institutions responded to reports of sexual assault or harassment.

In a speech at the George Mason University School of Law on September 7, 2017, Secretary DeVos said that schools will still be required to address sexual misconduct. However, she announced the Department would be rescinding the Dear Colleague Letters and instead regulate through actual regulations, subject to notice and comment. Secretary DeVos lamented that “for too long, rather than engage the public on controversial issues, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights has issued letters from the desks of un-elected and un-accountable political appointees.” She made it clear that “the era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.” DeVos emphasized the Department’s ongoing commitment to protecting victims of sexual violence. But she also clearly signaled that the Department will pay more attention to the due process rights of the accused, including questioning the “preponderance of the evidence” standard that the Department required all schools to use in adjudicating sexual misconduct cases. DeVos promised to work more closely with educational institutions, rather than operating “through intimidation and coercion.” And she said the Department would be open to exploring alternative methods of enforcing Title IX, including the possibility of voluntary regional centers where outside professionals would be available to handle Title IX investigations and adjudications.

DeVos did not indicate exactly what the new Department rules might entail, or when they will come into effect, nor has there been an official withdrawal of the Dear Colleague Letter yet. DeVos did indicate, however, that the Department will base the new rules on public feedback and will take into account the views of educational institutions, professionals, and individual students. In her closing remarks, DeVos noted that the Department of Education’s “interest is in exploring all alternatives that would help schools meet their Title IX obligations and protect all students. [The Department] welcome[s] input and look[s] forward to hearing more ideas.”[2]

Schools should take advantage of the Secretary’s call for comments, as the Department moves towards the development and implementation of a different and hopefully clearer set of rules governing the enforcement of Title IX. However, schools should also anticipate a period of uncertainty until final rules are issued. Moreover, schools should be aware of the continuing (and possibly conflicting) state law obligations that have been put into place following the Dear Colleague Letter. For example, many states including Connecticut and New York have passed legislation mandating use of the preponderance of the evidence standard in evaluating sexual misconduct on college campuses. We anticipate further, more detailed guidance in the next few weeks as the Department of Education works to implement Secretary DeVos’s policy announcements.

[1] 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 et seq.; 34 C.F.R. Part 106.

[2] Secretary DeVos Prepared Remarks on Title IX Enforcement, available here.

 This post was written by Benjamin DanielsAaron Bayer, & Dana M. Stepnowsky of Wiggin and Dana LLP., © 1998-2017

Back to School: Preparing for Campus Unrest

In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville protests, institutions of higher education are under heightened pressure to prepare their campuses for disruption and unrest.  Many colleges and universities have open campuses, enjoy historic visibility in their communities, and place a high value on free speech, expression, and the exchange of ideas, exposing them to unique challenges in planning for protests and civil disobedience.  As this academic year begins, it is critical that campus administrators equip themselves and their communities to manage and, when appropriate, to take affirmative steps to prevent campus unrest, whether initiated by student groups or third parties.

The proactive development of sound and well-thought out policies that balance the value of speech with the institution’s compelling interests in safety and preventing the disruption of campus operations is the foundation for successful management of these situations.  Now more than ever, it is important, even for institutions that have not experienced significant campus unrest in the past, to develop a model response to campus unrest and determine whether institutional policies permit and support this model.

Institutions should review their policies to determine (1) what procedures are in place for managing and monitoring student protests and demonstrations; and (2) how much authority they have to limit or condition access to their campus by third parties.  Thoughtfully drafted campus facilities use, protest, and demonstration policies can effectively set expectations and establish procedures for regulating picketing, protesting, and demonstrating on campus by students and third parties.  But they are not the only policies that demand attention, review, and coordination.  Other policies that may dictate how and to what extent an institution can control or limit civil disobedience on campus may include:

  • Campus trespass policies;

  • Policies that describe the purpose and use of campus;

  • Facilities use and event policies;

  • Academic freedom and other speech or expression policies;

  • Tabling, bulletin board, leafletting, or chalking policies;

  • Emergency response and other communications policies;

  • Student organization policies;

  • Policies that describe or limit the carrying and use of weapons on campus; and

  • Student codes of conduct.

In reviewing their policies, administrators should consider how they limit access to campus, including the rhetoric used to describe the institution’s values, which groups and individuals can reserve and use delineated spaces, and whether campus streets are publicly accessible or can be limited with regard to pedestrian and automobile traffic.  Institutions should ensure that their facilities use policies contain clear and publicized registration procedures requiring sufficient notice of all pertinent details of a proposed event.  Policies must also permit action to move or shut down an event in the event of an emergency, violation of policy, or disruptive conduct, and to undertake disciplinary and law enforcement action where appropriate.

Any number and configuration of campus constituencies can be affected by regulations on campus speech.  Administrators should be mindful of who their institutional policies are intended to target—students or third parties—and draft their policies to clearly cover only the intended targets.  Administrators should also be aware of unintentional targets, considering, for example, how the policies will apply when a student group brings a third party to campus or when the protesters are alumni.

Institutions should be wary of a one-size-fits-all approach.  While it can be instructive to review other schools’ policies, what works for a large, public institution will almost certainly not work for a small, private institution.  In particular, while public institutions must remain keenly aware of the First Amendment implications of limiting speech on campus, private institutions must be careful that their policies do not inadvertently grant students and third parties “rights” that they are not otherwise due and may be difficult for the institution to support.

Now is the time—even if your academic year has already begun—to examine, revise and coordinate implementation of pertinent policies so that administrators may smoothly, safely, and consistently address campus access, facilities use, and potential unrest as it may develop.

This post was written by  Beth Tyner Jones and Liz LeVan Riley and Rebecca C. Fleishman of  Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC.
More analysis at the National Law Review.

U.S. Department of Education Delays Certain Gainful Employment Disclosure Requirements

In its latest action regarding the “Gainful Employment” regulations promulgated under the Obama administration, late on June 30, 2017, the U.S. Department of Education (“the Department”) announced a delay in certain disclosure requirements that were to have taken effect on July 1, 2017. This announcement occurred through Electronic Announcement #106, a pre-publication draft Federal Register notice (which will appear in the Federal Register on July 5, 2017) and an official press release.

The Gainful Employment regulations require all education programs offered by proprietary institutions of higher education, and non-degree programs offered by public and private nonprofit institutions, to meet specific debt-to-earnings measures in order to remain eligible for federal student financial aid. Additionally, the regulations require institutions to provide extensive informational disclosures to students regarding their Gainful Employment programs, and to issue warnings to students when a program is in danger of losing its eligibility for federal student financial aid. As described in a previous alert, the Department announced on June 16, 2017, that it will establish a negotiated rulemaking committee to develop proposed revisions to the Gainful Employment regulations; however, that prior announcement did not alter the effectiveness of the current regulations.

Through this latest announcement, the Department has now delayed until July 1, 2018, the requirements for institutions to include a link to the required Gainful Employment program disclosure template in all promotional materials, to provide a copy of the required template to all students on an individual basis, and to receive acknowledgements from individual students that they received the template. Importantly, institutions are still required as of July 1, 2017, to incorporate the new Gainful Employment program disclosure template into their website descriptions of educational programs offered.

Please also note that unless an institution submitted a timely notice of intent to appeal its programs’ Gainful Employment measures to the Department in late January, this latest action does not affect the regulatory requirement to issue student warnings for programs in danger of losing federal student financial aid eligibility because of those measures.

This post was written by John R. Przypyszny and Jonathan D. Tarnow of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.

What to Expect under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos secretary of educationAfter an unusually contentious Senate confirmation process, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017.

DeVos has a record of promoting charter schools and school vouchers at the K-12 level, but little is known about her priorities for higher education. Her prepared comments and responses during her Senate confirmation hearing avoided specifics, promising only to work with lawmakers toward common goals.

Her early priorities with respect to higher education likely will include:

  1. Student debt and the cost of college;
  2. Regulation of for-profit colleges; and
  3. Enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. An entity in violation of Title IX may lose some or all of its Title IX funding.

Student Debt and the Cost of College

DeVos’s opening statement at the Senate confirmation hearing addressed concerns about rising amounts of student debt. “There is no magic wand to make the debt go away, but we do need to take action. It would be a mistake to shift that burden to struggling taxpayers without first addressing why tuition has gotten so high,” she said.

The Administration can be expected to propose alternatives to federally funded loan programs. On student debt, President Donald Trump had stated that he would alter the Obama Administration’s income-based repayment plan. Trump’s proposed plan would be funded by reducing federal spending.

For-Profit Colleges

The Obama Administration took significant measures to regulate for-profit colleges and the expenditure of federal monies. For example, the gainful-employment rule penalized higher education institutions that left graduates with a level of debt not commensurate with their earning potential.

Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed DeVos on her plans for combatting fraud and whether she intended to enforce the gainful-employment rule. DeVos responded, “We will certainly review that rule and see that it is actually achieving what the intentions are.”

It is expected the Administration will scale back oversight of for-profit colleges and postsecondary education generally.

Title IX

On her plans for enforcing Title IX, DeVos continued with her noncommittal responses. She said it would be “premature” for her to commit to continuing the Obama Administration’s enforcement of Title IX. DeVos stated only, “If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and the current situation.” It remains to be seen the extent to which she will withdraw or modify existing guidance. One aspect of the guidance that has received significant criticism in the past, and may be subject to change, is the designation of “preponderance of the evidence” as the standard of proof.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2017

Betsy DeVos Moves toward Confirmation despite Opposition

Betsy DeVosDepartment of Education Announces New Staff and Open Title IX Investigations

Opposition to Betsy DeVos Builds

Joining other professional education associations, the National Association of Secondary School Principals announced in a letter to the Senate HELP Committee that it opposes the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Senate offices have reported tens of thousands of calls and letters encouraging a no vote on Mrs. DeVos’s confirmation. Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Al Franken (D-MN), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Tim Kaine (D-VA) have indicated they will vote against confirming Mrs. DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education. However, she only needs 51 votes to be confirmed and Republicans, currently holding 52 seats in the Senate, have given their strong support for Mrs. DeVos. A HELP Committee vote to move forward with her confirmation process is scheduled for Tuesday, January 31.

This Week’s Hearings:

  •  On Tuesday, January 31, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will hold a meeting to vote on committee rules and subcommittee membership during the 115th Congress and to vote on the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be Education secretary.

  • On Wednesday, February 1, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will hold a hearing titled, “Rescuing Americans from the Failed Health Care Law and Advancing Patient-Centered Solutions.”

  • On Thursday, February 2, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education will hold a hearing titled, “Helping Students Succeed through the Power of School Choice.”

 Regulatory Updates

 Department of Education Delayed Title IX Investigations List

This week, the Department of Education delayed weekly updated list of colleges under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases. Under President Obama, the department released the list at the beginning of each week and the delay under the new Trump Administration has worried advocates that there may be less transparency in the new department. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee, criticized the department for not releasing the list. The list was ultimately released late on Thursday, January 26 and included two new investigations. Department officials said the delay was a “misunderstanding” due to transition between administrations, but advocates in and out of Congress have indicated they will keep a close eye on the department to ensure all sexual assault cases are handled properly.

Trump Administration Brings on New Education Staff

Josh Venable, top candidate for chief of staff at the Department of Education, has been officially brought over from the transition team. Former Bush and Obama administration staffer Jim Manning, as well as Stanley Buchesky, former venture capital managing partner, were also sworn in last Friday, while the White House works to finalize their job responsibilities. Most surprisingly included in the new education hires is Jason Botel, now a senior White House adviser for education, who donated to former President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and has served in Teach for America, founded KIPP Baltimore, and was most recently executive director of MarylandCAN.

Other staff include the following:

  • Derrick Bolen;

  • Debbie Cox-Roush;

  • Kevin Eck;

  • Holly Ham;

  • Ron Holden;

  • Amy Jones;

  • Andrew Kossack;

  • Cody J. Reynolds;

  • Patrick Shaheen;

  • Eric Ventimiglia;

  • Beatriz Ramos;

  • Jerry Ward; and

  • Patrick Young

© Copyright 2017 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

Post-Election Outlook for Higher Education

  • Dramatic changes in Department of Education enforcement actions based on departmental guidance;

  • Less government support for public institutions as Republicans seek to constrain both state and federal spending;

  • Less support for the concept of free community college;

  • Substantial changes in the manner in which federal student aid is administered;

  • Added scrutiny of institutions with large endowments;

  • Greater pressure for lower tuition.

In the long term, the federal regulatory environment will stabilize, and institutions can adapt to the new environment in which they will operate.  For now, institutions facing enforcement actions based on departmental guidance should consider the likely impact of the election on enforcement actions based on departmental guidance.  A new set of policy makers will soon be ensconced at the Department of Education, and their priorities can be expected to be quite different.  Those changes in priorities will be quickly reflected in changes in guidance documents, and the revised guidance documents could either be helpful or harmful to institutions currently subject to enforcement actions.

ARTICLE BY James H. Newberry Jr.
© Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. All Rights Reserved.

Fourth Circuit Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Transgender Student

Schools across the country have found themselves at the forefront of the societal debate on the appropriate manner in which to address issues surrounding accommodation of transgendered persons. Conflicting regulatory rulings, contemplated state legislation, and in the case of North Carolina, state prohibitions on accommodation have led to a patchwork of inconsistencies and doubt in relation to a school district’s legal duties.

On Tuesday, April 19, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of a transgender student, Gavin, who was born female and wished to use the boys’ restroom at his rural Virginia high school. The ruling, G.G. v Gloucester County Sch. Bd., No. 15-2056 (4th Cir., Apr. 19, 2016), is significant, as it marks the first time that a federal appellate court has ruled that Title IX extends to protect the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom that corresponds with the student’s gender identity.

Gavin had previously been granted approval by administration to use the boys’ restroom and did so for a short period of time until the school board adopted a policy prohibiting him from using the bathroom of the gender with which he identifies. Instead, according to board policy, Gavin was required to use the restroom of his biological gender or a separate, unisex restroom. Gavin filed a lawsuit claiming that the school board impermissibly discriminated against him in violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.

In reaching its decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals analyzed the Department of Education (“DOE”) regulations implementing Title IX. Those regulations permit schools to provide “separate toilet, locker room, and shower facilities on the basis of sex,” so long as the facilities are comparable. The question the Court faced in light of this regulatory guidance was how to apply the “separate but equal” mandate to transgender individuals.

The DOE argued that the regulation should be interpreted to mean that schools generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity; the Gloucester school board argued for an interpretation that defined students consistent with their biological sex. The Court recognized that the plain language of the regulation clearly permits schools to provide separate toilet, locker room, and shower facilities for its male and female students. By implication, the regulation also permits schools to exclude males from the female facilities, and vice versa. Although the regulation is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female for the purpose of access to sex-segregated restrooms, the Court concluded it is susceptible to two interpretations – determining maleness or femaleness is either a matter exclusively of biology, or it is a matter of gender identity.

The Court agreed that public restrooms, locker rooms, and showers historically have been separate on the basis of sex, and that individuals have a legitimate and important interest in bodily privacy. Nonetheless, the Court stated that these safety concerns or privacy interests should be addressed by the DOE or Congress, and not the Court. Thus, the Court held that it was required to afford deference to the DOE’s interpretation. In so doing, the Court held that an individual’s sex should be determined by reference to the student’s gender identity, i.e., consistent with DOE interpretation.

The Fourth Circuit only addressed the student’s claims with respect to Title IX and whether Title IX extends to gender identity. The case has been remanded back to the district court to decide whether the school board violated Title IX and the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the Fourth Circuit’s ruling only has precedential value in that circuit (encompassing Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which means those states are now required to follow the DOE’s interpretation of Title IX – that schools generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity.

What Does This Mean for Your District?

Although not binding in the Seventh Circuit, which encompasses Wisconsin, the Fourth Circuit’s decision is instructive as to how Wisconsin school districts should address restroom, locker room, and shower concerns under Title IX. Additionally, the DOE has been aggressive in its efforts to ensure that transgender students can use bathrooms in public schools that correspond with their gender identities. In November 2015, the DOE Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) issued a letter of findings to a Chicago-area school district demanding that the school district give unfettered locker room access to a transgender student for the facilities of the gender in which the student identified. The OCR gave the school district only 30 days to resolve the matter or risk forfeiting Title IX funding. The school district reached a settlement with OCR prior to having its federal funding rescinded.

School districts should begin the process (if they have not done so already) of developing policies to set the parameters and processes the district will follow when a transgender student seeks guidance and clarity. A district should further ensure that its non-discrimination policy is comprehensive in scope as to all protected classes of students. District policies should address how the district will ascertain the student’s gender identity; what proof, if any, a district will require; the manner in which a student should be addressed and allowed to change his/her name; student dress codes; student records; physical education class; school-sponsored and WIAA-sanctioned sports; and of course, restroom, locker room, and shower facilities.

If your district has a prior policy in place regarding transgender students and gender identity, your district should consider revising the policy to ensure it does not run afoul of Title IX. Ultimately, school districts should be prepared to respond to a request from a student seeking direction as to school processes and procedures. Now is the time to prepare for the inevitable and ensure the district has laid the framework to quickly and fairly respond.

©2016 von Briesen & Roper, s.c