A Title IX Timing Conundrum

Manning Peeler

          This post discusses the timing of the recently released Title IX final regulation by the U.S. Department of Education.  For an in-depth consideration of cross-examination in campus Title IX hearings, see Manning’s forthcoming article in the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy Volume 10, Issue 3 entitled Seeking Clarity in the Title IX Confusion: Cross-Examination Requirement in Title IX Hearings Under Due Process.

As universities continue to deal with the significant changes to education and campus life caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) released the final version of a 2,033 page rule regarding how educational institutions can be in compliance with Title IX.[1]  Although schools had been looking forward to finally receiving official guidance on the topic, both the timing of the release and the date required for compliance lead to serious concerns.  Universities will need to comply with the new regulation by August 14, 2020, but as they deal with the fallout of COVID-19, university general counsels, Title IX offices, and other stakeholders need more time to make structural changes to policies and procedures in order to come into compliance with the new regulations.

The DOE released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding Title IX regulations on November 29, 2018, replacing the previously rescinded 2011 Dear Colleague Letter and 2014 Title IX Guidance Q&A.[2]  This proposed rule received significant feedback and criticism, setting the record for the highest number of comments ever made on a proposed rule at over 124,000 comments.  The influx of public comments demonstrated that there were significant issues with the proposed rule, so universities lacked clarity regarding how to prepare to adjust their Title IX programs to comply with the eventual final rule.   Almost eighteen months later on May 6, 2020, the DOE released the final version of the rule, which made significant changes to the original proposed rule.  These changes affected crucial aspects of a Title IX program such as the standard of proof in hearings, the minimal amount of Title IX claim investigators, and training requirements for the campus community.  According to the rule, universities must be in compliance with it by August 14, 2020.

While some of these changes were important and necessary to attempt to balance supporting sexual assault survivors with protecting the due process rights of the accused, universities need more than just a summer, especially a summer during a worldwide pandemic, to shape their Title IX programs to be in compliance with the new rule.  The August 14, 2020 date is not arbitrary.  It coincides with the starting date for many schools throughout the country and would allow for all Title IX claims during the 2020-2021 academic year to be handled under the same rules.  Although this is a respectable goal, it is not a feasible one.  Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, stated that the DOE usually gives schools at least eight months to adjust their operations to comply with new regulations, and he criticized the DOE’s timing by stating, “As a result of the pandemic, virtually every college and university in the country is closed. Choosing this moment to impose the most complex and challenging regulations the agency has ever issued reflects appallingly poor judgment.”[3]  Peter Lake, the Director of the Stetson University Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, echoed Mitchell’s sentiment, pointing out that “[a] lot of people are going to be out of compliance for an entire academic year. The timing of this is really difficult for higher ed: late in the budget cycle, during a crisis and when they don’t have money.”[4]

With penalties such as loss of federal funding looming, universities must scramble to comply.   Difficulties associated with the pandemic include uncertainty about the opening of campuses, working from home, and budget issues.  Not all universities will have to make drastic changes to their Title IX programs in order to come into compliance, but any changes are significantly more difficult during a pandemic.  For example, the final rule requires at least three staff members to carry out different steps in the Title IX complaint process, so universities that do not have enough Title IX staff to meet this requirement will need to hire more staff or reorganize their staff structures.  As a result of the pandemic, universities already face difficult decisions regarding budgeting and staffing, and having to change their staffing organization in such a short time, especially in the period of stay-at-home orders, is an unnecessary burden to place on universities.  In order to ensure that universities have adequate time and resources to comply fully with the final rule and work toward Secretary Betsy DeVos’ goal of “support[ing] survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process,” the DOE needs to extend the timeline to comply with the final rule.[5]

[1] 34 C.F.R. pt. 106 (2020).  Although this regulation applies to all schools that receive federal funding, this post focuses on higher education institutions.

[2] See 83 Fed. Reg. 61,462, 61,497 (proposed Nov. 29, 2018) (to be codified at 34 C.F.R. pt. 106); Letter from Russlynn Ali, Assistant Sec’y for Civil Rights, Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Dep’t of Educ., Dear Colleague Letter: Sexual Violence 1, 4 (Apr. 4, 2011) (on file with the U.S. Dep’t. of Edu.); Memorandum from Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Sec’y for Civil Rights, Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Dep’t of Educ., Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence iii (Apr. 29, 2014) (on file with the U.S. Dep’t. of Edu.).

[3] Greta Anderson, U.S. Publishes New Regulations on Sexual Assault, Inside Higher Education (May 7, 2020), https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/05/07/education-department-releases-final-title-ix-regulations.

[4] Id.

[5] Kathryn Stamm, New DeVos Title IX Rules to be Enacted by Mid-August, Leaving Colleges Scrambling to Comply, The Cornell Daily Sun (May 7, 2020), https://cornellsun.com/2020/05/07/new-devos-title-ix-rules-to-be-enacted-by-mid-august-leaving-colleges-scrambling-to-comply.

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