Feds Say SMU Violated Title IX Law On Sexual Assault, Harassment
Southern Methodist University has agreed to provide a safer environment for students who allege sexual assault or other gender-based violence.
The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday announced SMU violated Title IX. The law bars discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs or activities.
SMU must take specific steps to comply. An Education Department statement says SMU has committed to track harassment reports and resolutions, improve staff training, set up clearer protections against retaliation and develop better procedures for sharing information with campus police.
“I appreciate Southern Methodist University’s strong commitment in this agreement to provide a safe and supportive educational environment for its students,” Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with Southern Methodist University in its implementation of the agreement."
In a news release, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights determined that SMU violated Title IX by “failing to promptly and equitably respond to student complaints of gender-based harassment and sexual violence, including sexual assault, and to reports of retaliatory harassment.”
In a statement, SMU says it’s committed to provide a “safe and supportive campus environment.”
“This voluntary resolution agreement with OCR confirms SMU’s commitment to provide a safe and supportive campus environment and to follow the Department of Education’s Title IX guidelines as they continue to evolve,” SMU officials said in a statement sent to KERA.
The statement continues: “We appreciate OCR’s recognition of the new policies and procedures SMU has implemented prior to and during its investigation, as well as recognition of the work of the President’s Task Force on Sexual Misconduct. Although we take issue with some of OCR’s conclusions and generalizations, we look forward to taking additional actions as outlined. The well-being of our students is our highest priority.”
OCR determined that SMU didn't respond promptly to complaints of sexual assault of a male student by another male student, and of "retaliatory harassment" from other students resulted in a "continued sexually hostile environment" for the victim, which led to him withdrawing from the university. The office also determined that SMU's sexual harassment and sexual violence policies don't comply with Title IX requirements.
The Education Department earlier this year released names of dozens of schools facing Title IX sexual violence investigations. Some have reached similar agreements. About 90 schools still face reviews.
Read the full SMU statement
SMU and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have reached a voluntary resolution agreement, concluding OCR’s investigation of complaints filed against the University in 2011 and 2013 under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The agreement resolves OCR’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 OCR’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, OCR 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 OCR’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 OCR 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.
OCR 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 OCR investigated SMU’s grievance procedures and an alleged sexually hostile campus environment, was withdrawn by the complainant, who notified OCR of the withdrawal on Nov. 6, 2014. In its letter, OCR 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 OCR did not follow the policies outlined in its Case Processing Manual for the review and disposition of this complaint,” Talbert said.
OCR 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 OCR 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, OCR 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.”
OCR 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.”
Read the Department of Education's letter to SMU
Read the agreement with the Department of Education