Having someone accuse you of sexual misconduct is incredibly serious—and if you are a college student in Alabama facing such allegations, it could have severe repercussions on your academic and professional future. Colleges and universities face consistent pressure to aggressively pursue all sexual misconduct allegations per federal guidelines, on pain of losing their federal funding. And with the introduction of several significant rule changes this year by the U.S. Department of Education, many schools are scrambling to adapt their policies and procedures. Unfortunately, and because of arguably unexpected consequences of the Title IX Final Rule's narrower scope, this means a higher risk for accused students to face disproportionate discipline or be denied due process. Let's talk about what you need to know to make sure this doesn't happen to you.
What Has Changed in Federal Sexual Misconduct Policies
Title IX, which protects students from acts of discrimination on the basis of sex, has long been interpreted to include protections against acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault. But in May 2020, the Department of Education (DOE) announced several far-reaching rule changes regarding how these protections should be interpreted and processed, beginning with the 2020-21 school year. Here are the most consequential changes:
- Schools now must have a single investigative process in place for faculty, staff, and students accused of sexual misconduct. This investigative process will now include live hearings and cross-examination of witnesses, not unlike what happens in a court of law. Witnesses who decline to participate in the live hearing and be subject to questioning cannot have their testimony included in the investigation.
- Schools have clarified rules for jurisdiction. Colleges and universities are now responsible for pursuing sexual misconduct allegations occurring at any place or location where the school exercises “substantial control,” both on and off-campus. Under these rules, off-campus sorority and fraternity houses fall under school jurisdiction; other types of off-campus housing do not, even if they are designed exclusively for student housing. Furthermore, schools are not responsible for alleged incidents occurring with students studying overseas.
- Schools must have “actual knowledge” of alleged incidents in order to pursue them. Under previous interpretations of Title IX, schools could be penalized for not pursuing allegations about which they should have “reasonably known.”
Narrowed Definitions of Sexual Misconduct
Perhaps the most notable change in Title IX rules is how the government defines “sexual misconduct,” or at least which types of misconduct fall under school jurisdiction. Before now, sexual misconduct was defined as any unwelcome contact of a sexual nature. Under the new rules, the government recognizes Title IX protections against sexual misconduct only if it falls under one of the following categories:
- Actual instances of sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, or domestic violence
- Allegations of quid pro quo (mostly related to faculty/staff attempting to leverage favors for sexual acts)
- Unwelcome conduct defined as “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies someone equal access to education.”
This third category, in particular, has sparked some confusion because it leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to what constitutes “objectively offensive” or denying someone “equal access to education.” The controversy surrounds the notion that if an act of sexual misconduct fails to deny the alleged victim “equal access,” it is not a violation of Title IX. In addition, even what constitutes "severe" or "pervasive" conduct can be subject to debate.
Possible Changes in Alabama School Conduct Policies
These DOE rule changes should (in theory) make it harder for students to be found responsible for false allegations of sexual misconduct, also giving them more latitude to present a stronger defense. That said, the resulting confusion and varied responses from individual schools may actually make it more difficult for the accused. Two important reasons for this:
First—while redefining the parameters of Title IX protections within schools nationwide, the new guidance does not hinder individual schools from rewriting their own policies to fill in perceived gaps in protections. Many colleges and universities have already begun revising their school conduct policies, and Alabama schools have the ability to do the same. As a result, an alleged offense might no longer fall under Title IX jurisdiction, but may still be investigated and penalized through individual school conduct policies. An accused student unaware of this fact could still suffer unfair treatment or even have to face parallel investigations under two separate systems.
Second—the future of the current DOE rule changes may also be in question. At least 18 states' Attorney's General have filed legal challenges to the new rules, and there is a good deal of other pending litigation. There is also a broad consensus that if a Democratic administration assumes office after the next election, that administration will revisit these rules.
All told, a student facing sexual misconduct allegations in Alabama may actually be in more jeopardy of retribution, not less. At the current time, there are simply too many variables in play to guarantee students due process—at least without expert assistance and advice.
The Advantages of Hiring an Attorney-Advisor
The good news is that no student accused of sexual misconduct has to face these allegations alone. In fact, consulting with an attorney-advisor can give you a distinct advantage in countering unfair misconduct allegations, for three important reasons:
- An experienced attorney-advisor will have up-to-date information on Title IX rules as well as any policy changes implemented by the individual school. This information can be crucial in helping you mount a successful defense.
- An attorney-advisor can help you prepare for the defense itself—by gathering evidence and procuring witnesses to testify on your behalf, and fundamentally taking all necessary steps to make certain that you have the strongest possible defense.
- The involvement of an attorney-advisor naturally keeps the school accountable to its own policies and procedures. This reduces the risk of you being denied due process or punished unfairly due to procedural error.
Consult with an Alabama College Sexual Misconduct Advisor
If you're an Alabama student facing sexual misconduct allegations, you need an expert in your corner to ensure your rights are protected. The Lento Law Firm has unparalled experience in successfully defending accused students during disciplinary proceedings. As one of the nation's pre-eminent experts in Title IX and college sexual misconduct cases and student discipline cases, Joseph D. Lento can help you navigate the confusing waters of school and federal policies to greatly increase your chances of a fair process and a positive outcome.
A false accusation of sexual misconduct should not be able to derail your future. The Lento Law Firm can give you the advantage you need. Call 888-535-3686 to learn more.
Alabama colleges and universities where Joseph D. Lento can help as your or your student's college sexual misconduct advisor during investigations, hearings, and appeals include, but are not limited to, the following schools:
- Alabama A & M University
- Alabama Southern Community College
- Alabama State University
- Amridge University
- Auburn University
- Auburn University at Montgomery
- Bevill State Community College
- Birmingham Southern College
- Bishop State Community College
- Brown Mackie College Birmingham
- Central Alabama Community College
- Chattahoochee Valley Community College
- Columbia Southern University
- Concordia College Selma
- Enterprise State Community College
- Faulkner University
- Fortis College Mobile
- Fortis College Montgomery
- Gadsden State Community College
- George C Wallace State Community College Dothan
- George C Wallace State Community College Hanceville
- George C Wallace State Community College Selma
- H Councill Trenholm State Technical College
- Heritage Christian University
- Herzing University Birmingham
- Huntingdon College
- Huntsville Bible College
- ITT Technical Institute Bessemer
- ITT Technical Institute Madison
- ITT Technical Institute Mobile
- J F Drake State Technical College
- Jacksonville State University
- James H Faulkner State Community College
- Jefferson Davis Community College
- Jefferson State Community College
- John C Calhoun State Community College
- Judson College
- Lawson State Community College Birmingham Campus
- Lurleen B Wallace Community College
- Marion Military Institute
- Miles College
- Northeast Alabama Community College
- Northwest Shoals Community College Muscle Shoals
- Oakwood University
- Prince Institute of Professional Studies Inc
- Reid State Technical College
- Remington College Mobile Campus
- Samford University
- Selma University
- Shelton State Community College
- Snead State Community College
- South University Montgomery
- Southeastern Bible College
- Southern Union State Community College
- Spring Hill College
- Stillman College
- Talladega College
- The University of Alabama
- Tri State Institute
- Troy University
- Tuskegee University
- University of Alabama at Birmingham
- University of Alabama at Huntsville
- University of Mobile
- University of Montevallo
- University of North Alabama
- University of Phoenix Birmingham Campus
- University of South Alabama
- University of West Alabama
- Virginia College Birmingham
- Virginia College Huntsville
- Virginia College Mobile
- Virginia College Montgomery
It is critical to make certain the college sexual misconduct investigation at your Alabama school is handled properly and that the accused student's interests are protected from as early as possible during the sexual misconduct investigative process. One major reason is because even at colleges and universities where a finding of responsibility for sexual misconduct charges is made at a hearing, the investigation will set the stage for what the hearing panel is provided prior to a hearing (and what the hearing panel will in large part rely on at a hearing), and at schools where the finding of responsibility is made solely through the investigative process, what takes place during the investigation itself will determine whether the accused is found responsible or not responsible for college sexual misconduct charges.
Unfortunately, some students, families, and college employees make the mistake of not taking the necessary precautions as soon as possible when accused of sexual misconduct at college. Some people will mistakenly believe that if they "just explain what happened," their college or university will be fair and impartial and will arrive at the truth. In a perfect world this may be the case, but in a perfect world, sexual misconduct cases would not exist.
Fighting passionately for the future of his clients at universities and colleges throughout the nation for many years, Joseph D. Lento knows how important it is to mount the strongest defense because he understands that an accused's academic and professional future is on the line. He does not settle for the easiest outcome, and instead prioritizes his clients' needs and well-being. Joseph Lento is a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, is admitted as an attorney pro hac vice in state and federal court if needed when representing clients nationwide, and serves as a college sexual misconduct advisor to students and others in academia facing sexual misconduct investigations and Title IX disciplinary cases in Alabama and throughout the nation. Make certain your or your student's interests are protected - Contact National College Sexual Misconduct Attorney Joseph D. Lento today at 888-535-3686 or by completing our online form.