Title IX policy review stalls under potential new federal guidance

The college will not implement revisions to its sexual misconduct policy until the U.S. Department of Education issues its final regulations for federal Title IX guidance, General Counsel Christine Hughes wrote in an email to the Beacon.

Emerson reviewed the proposed federal changes when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released potential revisions to Title IX guidance in December 2018, including raising the standard of evidence in sexual assault cases and redefining sexual assault.

Hughes wrote in an email to the Beacon that the College Policy Review Committee is choosing to wait until the Department of Education issues final guidance before any changes are implemented in the college’s sexual misconduct policy.

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The committee is made up of the vice president for administration and finance, the vice president for academic affairs, and the dean of students. The vice president and general counsel advise the group.

Title IX and Clery Act Coordinator Pamela White wrote in an email to the Beacon that the Title IX Office started conducting a review of the college’s sexual misconduct policy in 2016, before former Deputy Title IX Coordinator Pamela Ring left the school. The office sent the review and recommended changes to the College Policy Review Committee, which includes Hughes, in July 2018.

White and Hughes said they could not discuss the Title IX office’s proposed revisions before the Policy Review Committee approves them.

Former Emerson student Jillian Doherty helped stage a protest in 2015 to advocate for education, accountability, and transparency around sexual assault on campus. Despite 15 alumni and students demonstrating on the Boylston Street sidewalk during an all-day admissions event, the college made no immediate changes to the sexual assault policy.

Doherty, along with two other students, filed a complaint with the Federal Office of Civil Rights in October 2013 regarding how the college handled their individual sexual assault cases. The federal investigation into the college and the review of its policies are still ongoing.

Hughes said in an interview that the college last corresponded with OCR in January 2015 and that it typically took three to four years to resolve a case under the Obama administration. It is unclear whether or not this process will speed up under the Trump administration, according to Hughes.  

Doherty and another student—referred to as Jane Doe in her court case—also filed civil suits against the college, in addition to the federal complaint, for how the Title IX office handled their cases. Doherty and the other student both claimed the college violated Title IX policies by being negligent or deliberately indifferent in the investigation of their assaults. In both cases, a judge dismissed the suits and ruled that the college acted in accordance with Title IX.

“What I wanted the most out of the lawsuit was change and to be able to go back to school to finish my degree,” Doherty said in an interview. “I got none of that.”

Hughes said the federal investigation is likely ongoing because it is backlogged, considering the volume of cases OCR has to handle. The Department of Education website lists 1,449 open investigations from elementary through post-secondary educational institutions.

“We’re in this odd position where we still have an open investigation on the books, even though two federal judges have determined that we complied with Title IX,” Hughes said.

Now five years after her lawsuit, Doherty said that she thinks the college’s main issue is not being able to find an effective solution to the school’s history with Title IX problems—such as allegedly not thoroughly investigating cases or failing to enact strong enough disciplinary measures against the accused, as Piper Clark ‘17 wrote in an op-ed for the Beacon.

Pamela Ring, the former Title IX investigator at the college, left in early 2018, and the position remains vacant.

The college currently works with outside consulting investigators to resolve cases.

“I think at one point I blamed a lot of the administration’s actions on Pelton, and I wanted someone to blame,” Doherty said. “But I think it’s just a whole lot of miscommunication—a whole lot of people want the same thing but just don’t know how to get there.”

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