Yale settles Title IX complaint, launches new sexual misconduct policies

The Department of Education had accused Yale University of violating Title IX by not having an adequate system for reporting and resolving incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

To settle a Title IX civil rights complaint, Yale University has agreed to take a wide range of actions to improve its handling of charges of sexual misconduct.

The voluntary agreement, announced Friday by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, resolves 16 complainants’ charges that the university violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by not responding adequately to sexual-misconduct reports.

Title IX, which marks its 40th anniversary this month, requires gender equity in educational settings that receive federal funding.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been actively pushing for a wider understanding that sexual harassment and assault are violations of Title IX. It sent guidance to universities and schools last year detailing their obligations to create an environment that treats alleged victims sensitively, deals promptly with charges, and works to prevent such behavior.

“Students cannot learn if they don’t feel safe, and sexual harassment and sexual violence interfere with a student’s right to receive an education free of discrimination,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali said in a conference call with reporters Friday.

Between 2008 and 2011, the OCR has seen a 78 percent increase in sexual harassment complaints. In addition to investigating such complaints, it has been conducting proactive compliance reviews of eight higher education institutions and two K-12 settings.

The issue at Yale arose before the OCR's guidance letter was sent. Rather, it came into public view because of widely publicized incidents in the fall of 2010, when Yale fraternity pledges chanted comments outside dormitories that some students felt created a hostile environment – including slogans that appeared to support rape, such as “No means yes.” The civil rights complaint stemmed in part from such incidents.

Long before the agreement announced Friday, the university prohibited the fraternity involved from any on-campus activity for five years, and took other steps to improve the campus climate. It also delayed fraternity/sorority rush for first-year students until the second semester.

The agreement does not mean the OCR found the university in violation of Title IX, but simply outlines steps the university has taken or has agreed to through negotiations with OCR. Yale will be monitored through 2014 to ensure it is in compliance.

The investigation included interviews with dozens of students or recent graduates who told “tragic” stories of harassment or assault, Ms. Ali said. It revealed weaknesses in Yale’s system for reporting, recording, and resolving such grievances, she added.

Ms. Ali applauded Yale’s leaders for their “courage and willingness to change.”

Among the steps Yale has already undertaken or has agreed to:

  • Creating a university-wide Title IX coordinator who will oversee efforts to ensure compliance with Title IX in specific ways related to sexual misconduct.
  • Setting up a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct to educate students and staff about the grievance procedures and resources on campus, and to enforce the policies.
  • Training campus police, residential leaders, students, and others to ensure a safer learning and living environment.
  • Creating a Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center where victims can turn on a 24/7 basis for help.
  • Assessing the campus climate, at least annually, with regard to sexual misconduct, discrimination, and Title IX.

“We are pleased … with the terms of our voluntary agreement,” says a written statement from Yale. “Over the past two years, the University has committed extensive resources toward improving its policies, procedures, practices and services to provide an environment in which all students feel safe and well supported, and protected from sexual misconduct.”

The OCR’s guidance letter sent to schools last year was somewhat controversial, largely because some academic-freedom groups disagreed with its requirement that schools adjudicate charges of misconduct with a “preponderance of the evidence” standard – in which a disciplinary body needs to be just over 50 percent sure the incident occurred to take action against the accused.

Since the letter was issued last spring, Ali said she’s been “heartened to see institutions across the country share the concerns [about] sexual violence and harassment, and closely reevaluate and improve how they respond to and prevent these egregious acts.”

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