There are various interpretations of the word “harassment.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment refers to unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Anti-discrimination laws prohibit harassment against individuals in the workplace. But what about in the classroom?
Many universities consider harassment as a breach of their student codes of conduct or honor codes. Although there are clear cut definitions of harassment in the workplace, university harassment policies are not universal. Schools create their own harassment rules that dictate how they respond to allegations and punish guilty parties.
Title IX laws further complicate matters. Sexual or gender-based harassment violates Title IX regulations set by the Department of Education. Universities must follow Title IX guidelines to investigate these types of harassment at their school.
You must understand what you're up against if you face a harassment allegation. Harassment carries significant consequences that can jeopardize your future. Here's what you need to know about how schools handle harassment.
What do Schools Consider Harassment?
Universities prohibit students from threatening, intimidating, or abusing members of their communities. Generally speaking, harassment may be any act that contributes to a hostile environment.
Anti-discrimination policies further restrict harassment based on protected status. Students may not harass university members because of their race, gender, creed, color, religion, disability, or other biases.
Although exact definitions of harassment vary from school to school, many harassment policies follow the same basic framework. Princeton University defines harassment as “unwelcome verbal or physical behavior which is directed at a person based on a protected characteristic, when these behaviors are sufficiently severe and/or pervasive to have the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's educational experience, working conditions or living conditions by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”
Princeton provides the following acts as examples of harassment:
- Unwelcome racial or ethnic jokes or comments
- Disparaging remarks about a person's religious affiliation
- Displaying negative or offensive posters or pictures about a legally protected characteristic
- Emails, voicemails, text messages, social media, or other online behaviors that violate this policy
How do Schools Respond to Harassment?
Universities take harassment allegations very seriously. Schools typically investigate harassment complaints by holding a disciplinary hearing. During the hearing, school officials may review evidence, interview witnesses, and collect statements from parties to resolve the case.
If you face harassment allegations, it's important to familiarize yourself with your school's code of conduct. Many schools have strict deadlines for responding to allegations or appealing decisions. Your code of conduct will outline disciplinary procedures and your rights during investigations. Schools typically provide students with notice of the hearing and the right to an advisor during the process.
Although a disciplinary hearing may seem like a trial, students rarely enjoy all the benefits provided by a courtroom. Schools often hand out disproportionate and extreme sanctions, especially in cases involving harassment. Many universities also do not allow advisors to speak on a student's behalf.
Nevertheless, it's critical to enlist the help of an advisor to guide you through your hearing. A student defense attorney can help you challenge harassment allegations and collect evidence that is vital to your case. They will also look for procedural errors, biases, or infringements of your rights that may negatively impact your hearing.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Title IX prohibits gender-based harassment at federally funded schools. Universities must follow Title IX guidelines to respond to sex-based harassment, or they risk losing funding.
The Department of Education enacted the Title IX Final Rule in August 2020. This rule changed how universities respond to sexual harassment allegations. It defines sexual harassment as sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking. The Department of Education also considers sexual violence as a form of sexual harassment. This definition includes rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual abuse, and sexual coercion.
Under this policy, schools must now hold a single live hearing to investigate sexual harassment allegations. Students must submit to cross-examination, or the university will not use their statements when deciding the hearing.
Although schools must follow Title IX rules when dealing with sexual harassment, they may also have separate sexual harassment policies. Students accused of sexual harassment may have to deal with both Title IX hearings and code of conduct hearings depending on university policy. If you face sexual harassment allegations, you should speak with an advisor to prepare for these hearings.
What are Punishments for Harassment?
Schools do not hold back when it comes to punishing students found responsible for harassment. Consequences may vary depending on the circumstances of the case, the type of harassment, and whether or not it is your first violation. As an example, Penn State University provides the following sanctions for violations of its harassment policy:
- Conduct conversation
- Conduct warning
- Conduct probation
- Conduct suspension
- Indefinite expulsion
- Permanent expulsion
- Housing review
- Room reassignment
- Loss of housing
- Loss of privilege
Since harassment is a serious offense, even first-time offenders may face suspension or expulsion. Sexual harassment charges may also elevate the sanction. It's also likely that you will deal with a range of collateral consequences for a harassment violation. Many students face difficulties in finding employment, seeking scholarships, and attending other educational programs.
How an Attorney-Advisor Can Help
A harassment allegation can not only impact your status as a student; it can also change your life forever. The consequences of a harassment violation can follow you long after you serve your punishment.
If you've been accused of harassment, you need to enlist the services of an attorney. An experienced lawyer will represent your interests and ensure you get a fair opportunity to clear your name.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has spent many years advocating for students falsely accused of harassment. As one of the leading student discipline attorneys in the country, he knows how to protect student rights and achieve the best result. Contact Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation today.