When kids consider going to college, normally they imagine football weekends, late-night cramming, and Frisbee on the quad. Few consider the possibility they might have to deal with a charge of sexual misconduct. Every year, however, hundreds of students face exactly these charges.
A university judicial system isn't a court of law. In some ways, that's a good thing. For instance, students accused of sexual misconduct aren't usually facing jail time (though victims do sometimes file criminal charges). Just because they happen at school, though, doesn't mean anyone should take such charges lightly. A student accused of sexual misconduct could be facing suspension or even expulsion. Often, expulsion in such cases includes a transcript notation that can prevent a student from enrolling at another school.
In addition, college judicial processes are often confusing and difficult to navigate, governed by a complex web of competing laws and school policies. Precisely because a disciplinary hearing isn't a court of law, many schools feel comfortable denying defendants their basic due process rights.
Below, we examine how Worcester Polytechnic deals with sexual misconduct allegations and what to do if you find yourself charged.
Federal Law: Title IX
For many years, the primary means for prosecuting sexual misconduct on college campuses was Title IX. Many people associate Title IX with college athletics and its requirement that schools provide equal opportunities for both men and women. That's just one aspect of how the law changed higher education, though.
Title IX, passed in 1972, encouraged colleges and universities to prosecute instances of sexual discrimination and harassment by tying their willingness to do so to their access to federal funds. Over time, “sexual harassment” came to be interpreted broadly to include any instances of sexual misconduct. In some ways, this disciplinary system worked well. For one thing, it offered a very clear set of procedures for addressing such violations. At the same time, the very fact that prosecutions were tied to federal funding pressured schools to investigate absolutely every complaint they received and helped to undermine the rights of the accused.
March 2020 brought significant changes to Title IX. That's when the Trump administration, led by education secretary Betsy DeVos, issued new guidelines for interpreting the law. The new rules narrowed the definition of sexual harassment, restricted campus jurisdictions, and created new procedures for prosecuting such cases. All of these changes were intended to restore balance to the system by granting defendants expanded rights.
Sexual Misconduct Allegations in the Wake of the New Title IX Standards
As with so many other Trump administration initiatives, things didn't work out quite as planned.
A handful of schools actually sued to have the new guidelines set aside. Most schools, however, simply found ways around the new Title IX.
- First, any behaviors that no longer fit the new, stricter definition of sexual misconduct were encoded into university policy, usually as part of the student code of conduct.
- In a similar way, many colleges and universities reclaimed their jurisdiction rights by shifting these to their school policies as well.
- Finally, since they were no longer prosecuting many of their violations under Title IX, schools created entirely new processes for dealing with instances of sexual misconduct.
The end result? Most allegations of sexual misconduct were now prosecuted under university policy rather than Title IX. Often, these policies were far more confusing and complex than Title IX. Worse, they provided accused students with even fewer due process rights than they had enjoyed before.
How Worcester Polytechnic University Treats Sexual Misconduct Allegations
Worcester Polytechnic is among those schools that have chosen to create two separate tracks to address instances of sexual misconduct. As they note in their “Title IX Interim Policy,” “WPI remains committed to addressing any violations of its policies, even those not meeting the narrow standards defined under the Title IX Final Rule” (page 2).
The school's process is carefully outlined in the “WPI Sexual Misconduct Policy.” While it bears some similarity to the new Title IX procedures, there are some key differences.
- Complaints are handled through the Title IX Office, which ultimately makes a determination as to which track the school will use to prosecute the accused.
- The Title IX Office appoints one or more investigators to the case. These investigators interview the complainant, the respondent, and any witnesses. In addition, they examine any physical evidence relevant to the case.
- The investigator prepares a report which, after both parties have reviewed it, is submitted to a five-member judicial panel.
- The judicial panel evaluates the investigative report. In making their final decision, this panel may ask to interview the investigator or any of the witnesses in the case. Unlike in Title IX hearings, however, neither party has the right to cross-examination.
- Ultimately, the panel decides guilt or innocence and assigns sanctions if necessary. These sanctions can vary from community service and counseling, but suspension is common, and expulsion is a possibility.
- Either side may appeal the verdict, but only under very narrow circumstances relating to procedure or new evidence.
Joseph D. Lento Can Help
If you or your child should be accused of sexual misconduct at a college or university, take the allegations seriously. Like most schools, Worcester Polytechnic allows students to choose an advisor who may be an attorney. Make Joseph D. Lento that advisor. Joseph D. Lento specializes in student disciplinary cases and has years of experience defending clients against sexual misconduct charges. He understands Title IX law; he also understands university policy and is an expert at making sense of the bureaucracy of higher education. Joseph D. Lento is empathetic and will stand by you and your family, making sure you receive the due process rights you deserve as you work towards the best possible outcome.
For more information, contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-555-3686, or use our automated online form.