A Ph.D. student at Dartmouth College recently went on a hunger strike to bring attention to the sexual harassment she said she endured in the computer science department. In June, Maha Hasan Alshawi took to social media to express her frustration with Dartmouth's handling of her sexual harassment case. According to the university, Alshawi alleged in December that one of her professors “overtly touched his genitals in my presence on several occasions.”
After telling her professor that she planned to report his harassment, she alleged that another professor retaliated by giving her a “low pass” on her work as a teaching assistant, failing her on an exam, and undermining her work with undergraduate students. While the school conducted a preliminary Title IX investigation, Dartmouth declined to investigate further. Alshawi began her hunger strike in mid-July.
What is Title IX?
Title IX is a civil rights law enacted as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq. Congress passed the legislation to eliminate sex-based discrimination for school admissions, athletics, hiring, and financial aid determinations. But in the 40 years since Congress implemented Title IX, the las expanded to include sexual harassment and assault, including stalking and intimate partner violence. The law applies to all federally funded educational institutions, including K-12 schools, colleges, and universities.
Until recently, educational institutions receiving federal funding had an obligation under Title IX to investigate and remediate allegations of sexual harassment, whether or not a student made a complaint. Title IX law defined sexual harassment broadly as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” In May of this year, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines for Title IX investigations and hearings, changing the definition of sexual harassment.
New Title IX Regulations May Change Investigations
The new Title IX regulations define sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct that a reasonable person would determine is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school's education program or activity.” If the conduct doesn't meet this standard of sexual harassment, the school cannot pursue the investigation under Title IX. However, some schools may create a separate investigation and remediation process for allegations that don't meet the requirements of a Title IX claim.
The Ongoing Hunger Strike
Alshawi's hunger strike launched a four week battle with the university involving social media, alarmed alumni, and concerned medical professionals. Alshawi said she would end her hunger strike if Dartmouth opened an investigation without conditions requiring her to refrain from commenting publicly. “Every student at Dartmouth has the right to ask for a fair and transparent investigation without any preconditions,” she wrote on Facebook. After Dartmouth announced the appointment of an independent investigator to investigate her sexual harassment claims, Alshawi ended her hunger strike on August 7, 2020. The university says that it will make any findings of the external investigation public.
If you or your child face a Title IX claim or investigation, you need the help of an experienced student discipline lawyer. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have successfully handled Title IX and other student discipline cases at hundreds of schools across the country. Call the Lento Law Firm today at (888) 535-3686.