Being accused of sexual misconduct is serious under any circumstances. When these allegations are levied against college students, however, the consequences to the accused student's future can be devastating. Federal law requires schools to investigate every allegation of sexual harassment, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape—and schools that fail to do so can lose their federal funding. For this reason, as well as to protect their reputation, schools tend to address sexual misconduct issues aggressively. This often works against the accused student, who may be either denied due process or treated as guilty until proven innocent. To make matters worse, recent new rules instituted by the Department of Education have muddied the waters even further. If you've been accused of sexual misconduct while in college, here's what you need to know to protect your rights and your interests.
Changes in Misconduct Processes and Jurisdiction
In May 2020, the United States Department of Education instituted new interpretations and restrictions on Title IX regulations for schools. These new rules have gone into effect as of the 2020-21 school year, and they promise to have a considerable impact on how schools respond to allegations of sexual misconduct. Among the most notable changes:
- Schools must hold a single hearing process for all students, faculty, and staff, complete with live hearings and cross-examinations of the witnesses. The new rules require schools to hold a single hearing process for all faculty, students, and staff. To ensure due process to students, the policies also require school investigations to include live hearings and cross-examinations of witnesses. If a witness or complainant does not participate in a live hearing, their information will not be used in the investigation.
- The new rules change some definitions of off-campus jurisdictions for colleges and universities. Schools are now responsible for investigating sexual misconduct allegations occurring at any location or event under which they have “substantial control,” including off-campus fraternity and sorority houses. Schools are not required to investigate alleged incidents occurring at other off-campus housing, including students studying abroad.
- Schools are only responsible for alleged incidents for which they have “actual knowledge.” This wording has changed from earlier terminologies where the DOE could penalize schools if they should have “reasonably known” about the alleged sexual misconduct.
Changes in What Constitutes Sexual Misconduct
One of the most notable changes made by the DOE is the basic definition of what constitutes “sexual misconduct.” Whereas the previous interpretation encompassed any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, the new rules narrow the definitions of sexual harassment to three types:
- Any instance of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking;
- Quid pro quo harassment (e.g., from a school employee attempting to trade favors for sexual conduct); and
- “Unwelcome conduct so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies someone equal access to education.”
What makes this narrowed definition so notable is the change of this third criterion from “severe, persistent, or pervasive” to “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive”—and that it a qualifier has been added that it must deny someone “equal access to education.” If the alleged incident doesn't hinder a person's equal access, it doesn't technically fall under the jurisdiction of the school to investigate it, according to federal Title IX guidelines.
How Washington, DC Schools Are Responding to the Changes
These changes in the Department of Education regulations apply to all colleges and universities nationwide who receive federal funding. They do not, however, prohibit schools from creating and enforcing their own sexual misconduct policies. Therefore, some colleges and universities, including some in the DC area, are drafting new policies and procedures to cover what they consider to be gaps in the new guidance regarding sexual misconduct protections for students.
These new developments may make it more difficult for college students in DC schools to understand their rights when they face sexual conduct allegations. While Title IX no longer applies to certain misconduct cases, new revised disciplinary policies will vary from school to school and may continue to evolve. Some schools may even be governed by two parallel sexual misconduct policies to comply with federal guidelines. In all these cases, things could still go quite badly for students accused of misconduct, even with the narrowed scope of Title IX—especially if they cannot figure out where their rights lie within the scope of new rules.
Why You Should Hire an Attorney-Advisor for Help
The way schools investigate and punish sexual misconduct allegations faces an uncertain future. Not only are schools scrambling to comply with the new guidelines, but Attorneys General in 18 states have sued the Department of Education to try and block the new rules. Should a new Presidential administration take office, the Title IX rules could change yet again.
For students facing misconduct allegations, this confusion only stands to work against them, increasing their chances of being unfairly punished, denied due process, and having their academic futures jeopardized. Fortunately, college students have the right to hire an attorney to help in an advisory role when facing disciplinary investigations. An experienced attorney-advisor will be up-to-date both on DOE guidelines and on specific school polices to ensure the student knows how best to move forward. In addition, the very presence of an attorney-advisor in the process can help keep schools accountable for providing a fair investigation and proper due process for the accused.
Having an attorney-advisor will help make sure you understand the nature of the accusations against you, how they can affect your future, and what you can do to ensure your rights are not stripped from you in the process. Throughout the investigation, the advisor will help you collect key evidence and witnesses to help you mount an effective defense during the hearing, improving your chances for a positive outcome.
Experienced Washington, DC College Sexual Misconduct Advisor
If you attend college or university in Washington, DC, and are accused of sexual misconduct, your first line of defense is to consult with a professional attorney, preferably one with experience in school misconduct cases. The Lento Law Firm has extensive knowledge and expertise in school misconduct proceedings, and they have successfully helped respondents at colleges and universities across the country. Joseph D. Lento is one of the preeminent experts in Title IX and student discipline defense. Before entering the investigation phase of any student discipline case, give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-535-3686. They will answer your questions and help you defend your rights.
Washington, D.C, 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:
- American University
- Catholic University of America
- Corcoran College of Art and Design
- Gallaudet University
- George Washington University
- Georgetown University
- Howard University
- Potomac College Washington
- Trinity Washington University
- University of the District of Columbia
- University of Phoenix - Washington DC Campus
It is critical to make certain the college sexual misconduct investigation at your Washington, D.C., 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 Washington, D.C., 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.