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Federal Bill Would Regulate Colleges’ Handling of Sexual Assault

By Noah J. Delwiche and Andrew M. Duehren, Crimson Staff Writers

If approved, new federal legislation on sexual violence introduced in the United States Senate last week could change the way the University reports, advises, and assesses its approach to cases of alleged sexual violence.

Last Thursday, a bipartisan group of 12 senators introduced a modified version of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a bill that seeks to regulate how colleges and universities handle sexual assault. Legislators introduced a previous iteration of the bill last July that was not enacted.

The newest version of the bill leaves many of its earlier mandates in tact, such as requirements for specific training of personnel involved in disciplinary processes. The updated version of the bill from last week, however, requests that colleges conduct campus climate surveys once every two years, instead of once every year, as previously required by the bill. Last week’s version also lays out several new standards for confidential advisers, university affiliates who are designated point people to provide advice and support to alleged victims of sexual harassment.

In addition, the legislation could change how the federal government fines institutions for non-compliance with federal regulations. It would allow the government to fine the institution up to 1 percent of its total operating budget for violating requirements of the bill. Non-compliance with Title IX, a federal anti-sex discrimination law, already risks the loss of federal funding.

Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, said the bill, although still subject to change, could mean substantial changes for colleges if it is enacted, especially for larger institutions including Harvard.

“Complex schools with big budgets are definitely going to be very aware of these changes,”  Lake said. “No question that it’s going to have an impact on those places.”

Harvard’s Title IX regulations could be in tension with the timeframe by which the bill would require schools to notify students accused of violating their sexual harassment policies and the totality of statistics it requests that schools release. Whether the bill would have an impact on the level of consistency of Harvard’s disciplinary procedures across its schools and campuses remains in question.

The legislation as currently proposed would require that institutions notify both complainants and respondents within 24 hours of administrators’ decision “to proceed with an institutional disciplinary process” and after they have determined which disciplinary sanctions, if any, they will hand down.

According to Harvard’s centralized sexual harassment procedures, an investigative team will notify both parties following a decision to investigate a case of alleged sexual harassment, but the regulations do not stipulate a specific time frame. Under the the central procedures, individual schools hand down sanctions if one of their students is found in violation of Harvard’s central policy, and the central procedures require that those schools “notify the parties as appropriate.”

Tania deLuzuriaga, a University spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement that the University is monitoring the legislation “closely,” but did not respond directly to questions about specific points of possible tension between Harvard’s policy and the bill. University Title IX Officer Mia Karvonides declined to comment further.

By amending the Clery Act, the legislation could also require Harvard, like other institutions, to publish additional statistics relating to students who report incidents to Title IX coordinators. The College’s Administrative Board currently releases figures on the outcomes of disciplinary cases, including those involving sexual misconduct, but those statistics do not specify how many students reported such instances without pursuing formal or informal complaints.

The bill also includes a mandate for a “uniform process (for each campus of the institution) for student disciplinary proceedings relating to any claims of sexual violence against a student who attends the institution.” According to Lake, the potential ramifications for Harvard and other universities or university systems of this section of the legislation remain unclear. In the past, Lake said, the Department of Education has used language specifying consistency rather than mandating a strict, singular process.

“To some extent, the interpretations of this will have to duke it out even after Congress acts, assuming they pass it in the form that it’s currently in,” Lake said.

Harvard currently employs a University-wide sexual harassment policy that applies to all faculty, students, and staff. A single set of Title IX procedures, similarly, currently governs the investigation of all complaints filed against students across the University’s schools, although Harvard Law School has moved to depart from them.

—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at noah.delwiche@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.

—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at andy.duehren@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren14.

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Central AdministrationPoliticsHarvard Law SchoolGender and SexualityUniversityUniversity NewsSexual AssaultTitle IXODR