A group of 37 women at Occidental College in California filed a complaint today with the Department of Education on grounds of Title IX violations, becoming part of a growing number of universities, including Yale, which have come under investigation for providing inadequate sexual misconduct resources.
The complaint, similar to the one filed by 16 Yale students and alumni in March 2011, alleges that the school fosters a hostile work environment by not offering effective prevention and response programs for sexual assault. Students allege that the Los Angeles-based school did not educate them about consent, discouraged them from reporting assault and did not remove perpetrators from the university environment.
In 2012, after a 15-month investigation at Yale, the Department of Education reached a voluntary resolution agreement with the University, where Yale agreed to uphold newly-implemented reporting and grievance procedures for sexual misconduct cases. Over the course of its investigation, the Office for Civil Rights found that Yale underreported incidents of sexual harassment and violence and did not effectively inform students of sexual misconduct resources.
Members of the Yale community seeking specifics of the Title IX complaint filed against the University may face a long — or possibly interminable — wait.
Last week, a group of 16 student and alumni complainants announced that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate whether Yale has allowed a hostile sexual environment to persist on campus. But as of Monday, Yale’s Office of the Vice President and General Counsel has yet to receive many details about the complaint from the OCR, and according to legal experts interviewed, several legal obstacles could prevent Yale administrators from acquiring all available information.
When asked what Yale knew about the complaint Monday, University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said the OCR had shared little with the University.
“Actually, the department gave us very little information — only that they intend to begin an investigation of a complaint filed by a group of current and former students on Title IX compliance,” she said, adding that receiving information regarding the complainants’ motives was not necessarily relevant to her office.
Robinson said the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel will request to obtain a copy of the complaint under the Freedom of Information Act — a federal law which allows access to government documents. If the request is approved, she added, the government will provide Yale with a copy of the complaint that does not contain names and personal identifiers.
It is unclear whether Yale’s attempts to procure the complaint will even be successful, said Kristen Galles, a Virginia-based Title IX lawyer who has been litigating Title IX cases since 1993.
Based on precedent, Galles said, FOIA requests for Title IX complaints are usually denied to protect the privacy of any victims of sexual misconduct who may act as cosignatories. Even if Yale receives a copy of the report, she added, the University cannot disclose it to the public without the complainants’ permission.
“Retaliation is very rampant in any school you go to,” Galles said of the privacy protections. “It must have been pretty bad [at Yale] if it got to the OCR.”
Complainant Alexandra Brodsky ’12 said the contents of the Title IX complaint — which alleges that Yale violated the federal law requiring educational institutions to provide equal access to men and women — are not relevant to administrators. Divulging details of testimonials of sexual misconduct listed in the complaint would constitute a violation of confidentiality, Brodsky added.
All told, she said, the purpose of the complaint was to provide evidence to the OCR that an investigation was needed.
“The complaint will not be the basis of the changes that will happen,” she said. “It’s us pointing at a fire and saying, ‘Bring your fire truck.’”
Yale College Dean Mary Miller said Monday that she cannot respond to issues raised by the cosignatories until she reviews the “full text” of the Title IX complaint. Even then, Miller said, the Office of the Vice President and General Counsel may be the only administrative department fit to comment. University President Richard Levin could not be reached for comment Monday night, and declined to comment on the complaint Sunday since he had not been on campus over the weekend.
Both Miller and Michael Gregory, an expert on education law at Harvard Law School, said that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) — which prohibits a school from divulging information from a student’s record without the consent of the student — could prevent the public from seeing the complaint in full.
In contrast to the wait the University may face in procuring a copy of the Title IX complaint, the 16 complainants waited only two weeks between filing with the federal government on March 15 and learning of the OCR’s decision to investigate March 31.
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali said there is “no right answer” when asking how the OCR evaluates complaints, adding that the Yale complainants’ two-week waiting period was not abnormally short.
Later this week, Robinson said, administrators expect to receive formal notification of the investigation from the OCR.
Schools that are found in violation of Title IX risk losing their federal funding if they decline to comply with the law. Yale received $510.4 million in federal funding for research and training in 2009-’10, according to the University’s financial report for that fiscal year.