SMU and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have reached a resolution agreement that concludes OCR’s investigation of complaints filed against the University regarding its compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law that prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sex.
The investigation involved Title IX complaints filed against the University in 2011 and 2013. SMU released the following statement on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014:
SMU and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights have reached a voluntary resolution agreement, concluding the Office for Civil Rights’s investigation of complaints filed against the University in 2011 and 2013 under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The agreement resolves Office for Civil Rights’s concerns regarding the University’s compliance in these cases with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sex.
“SMU applauds every effort to end sexual harassment and assault on college campuses,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “However, we dispute some of the Office for Civil Rights’s conclusions regarding these complaints, which predate the recommendations made in April 2013 by SMU’s Task Force on Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures. Our campus community is committed to preventing and vigorously addressing sexual misconduct and to promptly and equitably responding to complaints.”
The Office for Civil Rights is reviewing the Title IX procedures of nearly 90 universities nationwide, including SMU. “Reviewing our policies and procedures is an ongoing commitment and responsibility as federal guidance evolves and is communicated,” Turner said. “The University looks forward to continued collaborations with the Office for Civil Rights.”
In the resolution, the Office for Civil Rights incorporated the recommendations made in April 2013 by SMU’s task force for new and revised policies and procedures, and calls upon the University to take additional steps, many of which already have been carried out by SMU during the Office for Civil Rights’s review or are in progress.
“I appreciate Southern Methodist University’s strong commitment in this agreement to provide a safe and supportive educational environment for its students,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. “I look forward to working with Southern Methodist University in its implementation of the agreement.”
“SMU is dedicated to maintaining policies and procedures that eliminate sexual harassment and violence,” said SMU Title IX Coordinator Samantha Thomas. “SMU encourages students to report every incident involving sexual harassment and violence, and to pursue every avenue of redress available to them through the criminal justice system and under Title IX.”
The resolution stipulates that SMU has entered into the agreement voluntarily and that it does not constitute an admission by the University that it has discriminated or failed to comply with Title IX.
“We are concerned that the Office for Civil Rights letter contains some generalizations that mischaracterize the facts,” said Kent D. Talbert, special counsel to SMU and former general counsel for the U.S. Department of Education.
The Office for Civil Rights reviewed three complaints against SMU. One case involved a complaint of inappropriate language by a faculty member during spring 2010. A second case, in which the Office for Civil Rights investigated SMU’s grievance procedures and an alleged sexually hostile campus environment, was withdrawn by the complainant, who notified the Office for Civil Rights of the withdrawal on Nov. 6, 2014. In its letter, the Office for Civil Rights stated that SMU’s own investigation of the complaint did not substantiate that harassment had occurred.
The third case involved an alleged sexual assault in 2012, which was dismissed by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. In this case, the University suspended the alleged assailant three days after the complainant reported the alleged assault to the SMU Police Department. “That case is now pending in federal district court, and I am troubled that Office for Civil Rights did not follow the policies outlined in its Case Processing Manual for the review and disposition of this complaint,” Talbert said.
The Office for Civil Rights also reviewed student inquiries and allegations about sexual harassment, as well as complaints filed under Title IX from 2009 through 2012. “I am concerned that the Office for Civil Rights appears to have grouped together a broad list of inquiries and allegations with a smaller number of formal complaints filed under Title IX,” Talbert said. “When official Title IX complaints are made, SMU promptly and thoroughly carries out its duties and responsibilities under the law in pursuing them.”
In the resolution agreement, the Office for Civil Rights concluded that SMU “has implemented and commits to maintaining a number of policies and procedures to ensure that students enrolled in the University are not subjected to a hostile environment on the basis of sex; to promptly investigate all incidents of sexual harassment of which it has notice; to take appropriate disciplinary action against students, faculty and staff who violate the University’s policies and procedures addressing sexual harassment; and to take prompt and effective responsive action to end sexual harassment and prevent its recurrence, and where appropriate take steps to remedy the effects of sexual harassment on the affected students.”
The Office for Civil Rights also recognized SMU’s ongoing Task Force Implementation Group, which consists of student leaders and University officials, including SMU’s Vice President for Student Affairs and its Title IX Coordinator. The group has overseen the implementation of recommendations that address areas including sexual misconduct reporting, Title IX policies, the student conduct process and Code of Conduct, communication, accountability, education and training.
Some of the initiatives already implemented by SMU to address sexual misconduct include:
- Policy and procedural changes, including the development of a comprehensive Title IX Policy that includes an in-depth investigation of all allegations; a review and revisions of the Student Code of Conduct; the establishment of an anonymous reporting system for sexual assault; and clarification of the definition of consent;
- Expanded education explaining and identifying campus and community resources, including SMU’s Title IX Coordinator and seven Deputy Title IX Coordinators, as well as law enforcement officials, sexual assault nurse examiners and confidential counselors;
- Expanded education on how to report and prevent discrimination and sexual violence, including a comprehensive online course for incoming students, continuing classroom courses for students and new online courses for faculty and staff;
- Increased communication through multiple channels to students, parents, faculty and staff, including information on reporting sexual assaults to police and obtaining medical care as soon as possible; pursuing criminal charges through the district attorney’s office; and filing a complaint under SMU’s Title IX Policy. Communications include a website, smu.edu/LiveResponsibly; a printed and online brochure and family handbook; campus posters; and presentations to community members;
- A new research-based sexual assault bystander intervention program, developed by SMU psychology faculty members;
- Student-led initiatives, including the development of a student Values Statement and the “Not On My Campus” campaign to raise awareness of sexual violence, in conjunction with the SMU community’s participation in the White House’s national “It’s On Us” campaign.
“Sexual harassment and violence are serious issues at universities and colleges across the country,” Thomas said. “Our community will continue to monitor the effectiveness of our policies and procedures to combat sexual misconduct, maintain a safe and supportive environment and protect those who report sexual misconduct.”