High school isn't like Ferris Bueller's Day Off. You can't expect to break the rules and then just create some elaborate ruse to get away with it. Maybe that worked in the 1980s when hair was high, and fashion was neon, but those days are long gone.
These days, school policies are no laughing matter. Even minor infractions can get you suspended or expelled. That's particularly true when it comes to something like sexual misconduct. In the current political climate, no school can afford to ignore a Title IX accusation. Justice must be swift, and it must be severe. Otherwise, your district could wind up on CNN.
What does all this mean? It means that if your child has been accused, you need to take the situation seriously as well. The stakes are enormously high, and the rules of the game are difficult to understand at best. In fact, the very first thing you need to recognize is that you shouldn't try to handle things on your own. You're going to need a qualified, experienced Title IX attorney by your side.
A Quick History Lesson
Remember the days when the worst thing that could happen to you in high school was to be summoned to the vice-principal's office? If your child should be accused of sexual misconduct, the vice-principal will likely be the least of your worries. That's because these offenses don't just violate school policy: they violate federal law.
Actually, Title IX, the law schools use to investigate most sexual misconduct allegations, was around even in Ferris's day. It was originally passed in 1972. Back then, though, it was mostly used to keep school faculties and administrators in line. The law barred colleges and high schools from discriminating against their female students. However, over time, the interpretation of the law shifted. Schools weren't just required to stop discriminating themselves; they were required to prevent discrimination by anyone on campus, including students. Under those circumstances, schools needed guidance, a set of rules on how they should go about investigating and adjudicating student accusations.
Here's the problem: changing the law's intent put stress on the system. Title IX was never meant to be used to go after students and trying to use it that way was never going to work well, no matter how many procedures the government created or rules it drafted. Physics teachers aren't experts in the law. History teachers aren't equipped to make fine distinctions about how much weight to give this or that piece of physical evidence. They aren't experienced at deciding if witnesses are credible or not.
What we currently have, then, is a system in which the school does its best to render “justice” to its students, but where more often than not, it just gets things wrong.
How Does Title IX Work?
How exactly does a Title IX investigation unfold?
Every school district must have a designated Title IX Coordinator. Accusations must go through this office. Only a complainant, a complainant guardian, or the Coordinator may sign an official complaint.
Once a complaint has been signed, the Coordinator must give notice to the respondent. This notice should include the name of the complainant and a description of the alleged incident. In addition, it should apprise respondents of their rights. Among these, respondents have the right to be treated as “not responsible” until proven “responsible” and the right to choose an advisor who may be an attorney.
The Coordinator then assigns an Investigator to look into the case. This person meets with both sides, collects any physical evidence, and interviews any witnesses.
At the conclusion of the investigation, the Investigator completes a written report summarizing their findings. Both sides in the case have an opportunity to suggest revisions to this document before it is forwarded to the Title IX Coordinator.
At this point, the Coordinator assigns a Decision-Maker to review the investigative report and come to a conclusion as to the respondent's level of responsibility. Some schools hold official hearings into Title IX accusations. At a hearing, respondents can—through their advisors—offer evidence and cross-examine any witnesses against them, including the complainant.
However, Title IX does not require high schools to hold hearings. The Decision-Maker may simply review the investigative report and make a decision.
Once a Decision-Maker has ruled, both sides have the opportunity to appeal the decision to an Appeals Official.
If the Decision-Maker finds the respondent responsible, any sanctions are enforced following the opportunity to appeal.
What Can Go Wrong?
If the Title IX process sounds complex, that's because it is. That complexity means a lot of things can go wrong.
- When Congress passed Title IX, it needed an enforcement mechanism, something to make sure all schools complied. It chose money. That is, the law promises to withhold federal funds from any high school or university that discriminates against women. That worked well when the violators were schools themselves. When the school mission became investigating students, though, it put pressure on high schools to go after the accused as zealously as they could, sometimes too zealously. No school wants to risk its funding, so they investigate every allegation no matter how spurious, and they punish every infraction as severely as they possibly can.
- In addition, Title IX requires that every school district employee, from the superintendent to lunchroom servers, report any knowledge of sexual misconduct. Unfortunately, not all of these employees have training in education and counseling. They don't always correctly interpret what they see. That leads to a lot of false allegations each year.
- Current Title IX law requires that the district treat accused students as not-responsible (innocent) until proven responsible (guilty). However, a number of court cases have uncovered that Title IX officials tend to begin from the opposite perspective, with the premise that respondents are responsible. This isn't particularly surprising given that none of these officials—Title IX Coordinators, Investigators, Decision-Makers, Appeals Officers—is required to have any special education or qualifications. They must be given some training, but training costs money, so schools typically provide the minimum. When officials start with the assumption that the respondent violated policy, they may overlook important evidence or ignore witnesses that contradict the complainant's story.
- A high school may offer respondents the chance to defend themselves at a formal hearing, but they aren't required to do so the way colleges are. Ultimately, this deprives accused students of the opportunity to have their voices heard.
- Decision-Makers do not use the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard we're used to in establishing a respondent's level of responsibility. Instead, most use something called the “preponderance of evidence.” According to this standard, a Decision-Maker must find a respondent responsible if they believe it is “more likely than not” that the student violated Title IX policy. Attorneys often refer to this as the “fifty percent plus a feather” standard because it requires Decision-Makers to be only half certain a student is responsible.
- Finally, while students are entitled to appeal a Decision-Maker's findings, they may only do so under very specific circumstances.
- The discovery of new evidence
- Proof that officials violated Title IX procedures
- Proof that officials were unfairly biased against the respondent
The bottom line is that Title IX procedures aren't always fair to respondents. Worse still, many schools simply don't follow these procedures properly and wind up violating students' fundamental due process rights.
What Happens if You Lose?
Title IX doesn't mandate what sanctions a school may use to discipline a student who's found responsible. It only requires that schools maintain a consistent set of penalties that can apply in such cases.
Most schools claim to use a wide range of sanctions, anything from verbal warnings and detention to probation and counseling. In practice, however, the minimum sanction is usually suspension. More commonly, schools expel students for sexual misconduct violations.
Expulsion in itself is a serious penalty. When a child is removed from their learning environment, it can obviously have many negative effects on their education. Beyond this, educational experts have found that so-called “exclusionary discipline” approaches—suspension and expulsion—can have severe emotional impacts on children. For example, studies consistently show that students who have been expelled are far more likely than their peers to wind up in jail or prison later in life.
Expulsion can be a burden on the entire family as well. Some schools provide options for expelled students, like alternative schools or online educational programs. Many smaller schools, though, simply don't have these kinds of resources. In such cases, the only alternatives are to move to another district or to home school the child. Neither of these options is ideal.
Expulsion isn't just about expulsion, though. Suspension, expulsion, and other serious types of disciplinary action often show up on a student's permanent record, the same record colleges and universities look at when deciding who to admit. Few are willing to admit applicants who have committed sexual misconduct. Even being placed on probation if found responsible can close most doors after high school. A young adult with a Title IX charge on their record may likewise find it difficult to be accepted to college, join the military, or to establish a career.
Finally, it's worth recognizing that even if a student is found to be “not responsible,” they may still face serious repercussions. In the digital age, accusations can live forever online, even if they're proven to be false. Once a student is labeled a sex offender, that label can potentially hound them for the rest of their lives.
How Can Attorney Joseph D. Lento Help Your Family?
What are the stakes in a Title IX investigation? Nothing less than your child's future. The school district doesn't have the power to send anyone to jail, but they can put such a black mark on a student's academic and personal reputation that the student can never recover.
Given just how serious the consequences of a responsible finding can be, you might expect that schools would be particularly careful in how they interpret the law. You would think they would be cautious in weighing evidence and sifting through testimony. The reality, though, is that the law doesn't even require them to establish guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Title IX officials are often merely volunteers or faculty and staff who have been drafted into their roles. It's not surprising then that schools can and do make mistakes when it comes to enforcing the law. Sometimes, lots of mistakes.
If you're looking to protect your child, you need someone on your side, someone who knows the law and can keep the school district honest as you go through the justice process. You need Joseph D. Lento.
Joseph D. Lento isn't just an attorney. He's a Title IX attorney. He knows the law, and he knows how school districts operate. Joseph D. Lento built his practice—has dedicated his life—to defending students across the United States just like your child from accusations of sexual misconduct. He's seen firsthand the damage Title IX accusations can do and he's committed to helping students hang on to their academic careers and reputations. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has dealt with hundreds of cases, from simple verbal harassment charges to allegations of sexual assault and rape.
Most importantly, though, attorney Joseph D. Lento knows what you're going through. He knows that no matter what the situation may be, the odds are that you aren't getting a fair shake. He believes that in today's political climate, schools are too quick to find students responsible and too harsh in the penalties they give out. At the same time, Joseph D. Lento knows that every case is unique and requires its own strategy. Whatever your particular situation, attorney Joseph D. Lento will get you the justice you deserve.
If your child has been accused of Title IX sexual misconduct, don't wait. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.