Department of Education ends Title IX investigation

Yale has reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), ending the 15-month saga that began with a Title IX complaint alleging that Yale had allowed a hostile sexual environment to persist.

The OCR announced today that it has closed its Title IX investigation of the University’s sexual climate. Under a “voluntary resolution agreement” between the office and Yale, the University will continue to uphold its newly implemented grievance procedures and inform the community of its available resources devoted to issues of sexual misconduct. Yale will not face any disciplinary action but will be required to report to the OCR until May 31, 2014, according to the agreement.

University President Richard Levin announced the news in a campuswide email early Friday afternoon which emphasized that there were “no findings of noncompliance” in the OCR’s investigation.

“This investigation is concluded, but our work is by no means done,” Levin said. “As I have stated before, sexual misconduct will not be tolerated. It is inimical to Yale’s values, and it has no place on our campus or in our culture.”

The OCR found early in its investigation that Yale underreported incidents of sexual harassment and violence “for a very long time,” said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, in a Friday press conference. The investigation also concluded that the University kept inadequate records of reported sexual misconduct incidents, and did not adequately inform students of resources devoted to sexual harassment and assault.

The investigation into sexual climate at Yale began more than a year ago, after 16 students and alumni filed a complaint with the OCR in March 2011. Their actions followed a turbulent fall semester in which members of Delta Kappa Epsilon chanted misogynistic remarks such as “no means yes, yes means anal” during their pledge initiation on Old Campus.

The complaint claimed the University had not responded “in a prompt and equitable manner” to a sexually hostile environment on campus. It alleged an “ongoing pattern” of sexual harassment, and identified the University’s grievance processes for handling complaints of sexual misconduct as inadequate, according to a letter sent to University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson today by Thomas J. Hibino, regional director of the Department of Education.

The June 11 voluntary resolution agreement states that it “does not constitute an admission” of noncompliance and lists steps the University has taken “to assure that it has an environment and culture in which all students feel safe and well supported.” Such steps include the creation of the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct in July 2011, which was under way before the complaint, and the appointment of Deputy Provost Stephanie Spangler in November 2011 as Yale’s Title IX coordinator.

The resolution also outlines the University’s sexual misconduct prevention and response training programs, including those for Title IX coordinators, UWC members, Yale Police Department officers, freshman counselors, residential college deans and masters, and leaders of registered student groups.

Two higher education experts interviewed said it is common for the OCR to resolve such investigations by negotiating voluntary resolution agreements, allowing schools to avoid admissions of wrongdoing. A spokesman for the Department of Education said in a Friday email that voluntary negotiations occur “quite often,” as schools work with the OCR to uphold their Title IX obligations.

“The spirit of Title IX is to encourage voluntary compliance, and so the department seeks to come up with voluntary compliance solutions,” said Peter Lake, director for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. “And one way you can avoid getting into fines and potential further litigation with the department is to go through a process like this.”

Ali said both the OCR and the University wanted to reach an agreement as soon as possible in response to concerns that needed to be “addressed immediately and cured immediately.”

The letter said the OCR’s investigation also determined that the University’s old grievance procedures were inadequate and found “a lack of clarity among those designated to coordinate compliance under Title IX.”

Hannah Zeavin ’12 and Alexandra Brodsky ’12, two of the Title IX complainants, praised the OCR’s investigation as “thorough.” Brodsky said she and the other complainants generally agree with the OCR’s findings: that Yale’s response to instances of sexual misconduct has improved dramatically with recent changes, such as the creation of the UWC, but that there is still much work to be done.

The investigation and agreement do not clear Yale from all wrongdoing, Zeavin and Brodsky said. The details of the investigation outlined in the letter to Robinson demonstrate that Yale was “not necessarily within the bounds of Title IX law” at the time the complaint was filed, Zeavin said.

Zeavin and Brodsky emphasized that while there were no findings of noncompliance, there were also no findings of compliance. Brodsky called Levin’s message to the Yale community particularly “misleading” on this point.

“The pressure is still on Yale, no matter how they manage to spin it in an email,” Brodsky said.

The complainants said in a Friday statement released that they are “grateful” to the OCR for its investigation and plan to form a standing committee comprised of students and alumni “to oversee the implementation and to serve as a conduit of information to the University and the OCR.”

The OCR announced it would launch an investigation into Yale’s sexual climate on March 31, 2011.

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