Open Title IX investigation into UNT changes focus

Open Title IX investigation into UNT changes focus

Open Title IX investigation into UNT changes focus
October 12
10:10 2017

A federal investigation into UNT’s procedures regarding sexual assault investigations shifted focus in July 2017 after the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued an internal memorandum on the scope of complaints on June 8, 2017.

In the memo, the OCR removed requirements for systemic approaches to investigating universities, instead allowing for such investigations when a complainant or the investigative team identifies systemic issues.

According to documents obtained by the North Texas Daily, the OCR communicated the change in scope of their investigation to UNT on July 18, 2017. In a letter to the university, the OCR outlines the new scope as focusing on the specific case of the student who filed the complaint which spurred the investigation.

The initial OCR investigation of UNT was geared to review overall standards of university procedures to receive and investigate sexual assault complaints. Such an investigation required three years of past complaint data from UNT, data the OCR no longer intends to review.

“Three years of data versus just one case is a big difference,” public health freshman Katie Crippen said. “If a university has a history of pushing things under the rug, that would be more evident over three years than a case which might be over just a couple of months.”

Previous guidelines for OCR investigations were established under the Obama administration and had broad requirements for investigations. These investigations took 1.7 years on average, a figure the Department of Education hopes to cut down with the new guidelines.

“If the OCR can hone in on one thing, it’s better than not being through on a multitude of things,” undeclared freshman Kernelius Isaac said. “When you get focused on one thing, that one thing is more likely to help the system.”

Rollback of Obama-era guidelines for institutions

On Sept. 22, Betsy DeVos rolled back Obama-era rules on how universities should deal with complaints of sexual misconduct. This involved rescinding two key pieces of guidance from officials under the Obama administration: the Dear Colleague letter of 2011, a landmark document in the previous administration’s efforts to curb sexual assault on campuses and the 2014 Q&A on Title IX and Sexual Violence on how to implement it.  

Inya Baiye, UNT’s director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX coordinator, said it’s not unusual for each new administration to issue its own set of guidelines regarding Title IX. The Obama administration did so and outlined specific rules for institutions to follow. The Trump administration’s changes remove many of these explicit requirements, giving institutions more flexibility in deciding their procedures.

Baiye said the university is reviewing its procedures regarding Title IX and sexual violence, and no decisions have been made on whether to initiate any changes. She said the changes “are not affirmative,” meaning they don’t require institutions to make any changes or additions, but rather remove some mandates. Universities are left with the choice of whether to institute any of the changes possible.

“College is a scary place for many students, and if you don’t regulate something like sexual assault I think it’s a mistake,” Isaac said. “Raising the bar of evidence or extending the timeline for investigations would be rude and disrespectful to the community built here at UNT.”

The current Department of Education rules are interim guidelines, meant to be replaced after a period of rulemaking during which the Department of Education will solicit comments from the public and stakeholders.

“Having the OCR say there’s a little more flexibility in the choice of evidentiary standard that you’re using or the timeline is just another opportunity to have a university look at their process again,” Baiye said. “You want to be at an institution where at the end of the day they’re always evaluating to see how the investigation process is working.”

One major criticism of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter alleged it took away the due process rights of students accused of sexual assault. Devos said these rights will be restored and her changes will make the process more fair for both parties.

Changes schools could make to processes

The new guidelines will affect multiple parts of university sexual misconduct procedures, including the following:

  • Time constraints for investigations: While the Obama-era Department of Education mandated all investigations of sexual misconduct be completed in 60 days, the new rules remove this requirement and instead institutions to conclude them promptly.
  • Appeals Process: The previous guidelines on investigating sexual misconduct insisted schools have an appeals process for both parties involved. The new rules do not encourage an appeals process at all and leave whether both or only one party can appeal up to institutional discretion.
  • Standard of Evidence: Obama-era rules decreased the standard of evidence for complainants, allowing the “preponderance of the evidence” standard for proof. This standard is based on whether it seems more likely the misconduct occurred than not. This standard is no longer required, but institutions may choose to adhere to it rather than a higher standard of proof.
  • Reliance on law enforcement: Institutions may now pass complaints of sexual misconduct on to legal officials as they have no requirement to have an internal process to investigate. The new rules do not ask institutions to do pass on cases but say nothing on the subject, as opposed to old guidelines which expressly stopped schools from doing so.

“It would be interesting to see if passing cases on was possible,” Baiye said, emphasizing it was not a conversation which she’d had or heard happen yet. “I think that where we are now is we have invested a lot of time, a lot of brainpower, a lot of energy and a lot of student feedback into the process we currently have.”

Students can make their voices heard in the process of reviewing and potentially changing Title IX procedures by taking part in UNT’s Committee on Prevention & Education on Sexual Assault & Intimate Partner Violence. Email Survivor Advocate Renee McNamara at SurvivorAdvocate@unt.edu to get involved.

About Author

Sarah Sarder

Sarah Sarder

Sarah Sarder is the Senior News Writer for the North Texas Daily.

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