Today, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a list of 55 colleges and universities currently being investigated for potential Title IX violations involving sexual violence and harassment. Some of these investigations have been reported on previously, but others are being announced for the first time. The list’s release has garnered national attention, and even brought the Department’s website down briefly.
If you’re a student reporter covering one of these schools and just now learning about the investigation, you probably feel there’s a lot to catch up on. Many of these investigations have been going on for months, at a minimum. Here are some initial steps to take:
- Start requesting public records. If you’re at a public university, your best bet is to start with the school itself. If you’re at a private university, you can request some of these records from the Department of Education, and some (such as the institution’s own policies) may be available online already. Use our public records request letter generator to format your request. Consider requesting:
- Copies of any correspondence between administrators at your school and the Department of Education. When the Office for Civil Rights opens an investigation, one of the first steps is to notify the institution being accused, so your school should maintain documentation that will show when they learned of the complaint.
- A copy of the complaint itself.
- Documents the university has provided to OCR. Often, OCR will request information from the school to help it make its determination. Ask for copies of any records you school has shared, which might include information about policies, training, student disciplinary outcomes, and/or grievance procedures.
- Emails between administrators discussing the complaint. Did they discuss how or whether to announce the investigation?
- Copies of your university policies regarding sexual violence and harassment.
- Copies of any contracts or invoices with outside consultants hired by the university to help deal with the complaint. This could be attorneys, campus safety consultants or public relations staff.
- Read up on Title IX. This guide from the Department of Education explains what the law protects against. This guide walks you through the investigation process. This site, from the White House’s new website on sexual assault prevention, explains students’ rights under Title IX and the Clery crime disclosure statute.
- Don’t forget other laws relating to sexual violence and harassment. Your school is being investigated under Title IX, but there’s also the Clery Act, which requires schools report information about crimes happening on campus. Occasionally, complaints about the way schools respond to sexual violence and harassment can violate both Title IX and the Clery Act. Here’s our 10-step guide to checking on your school’s Clery Act compliance.
- Talk to people on campus. If you’re just learning of the investigation, ask administrators why they didn’t tell students sooner. What has been the impact of the investigation so far? What, if any changes have they made to their policies? How do students feel about the university’s response to sexual violence and harassment? What have been their experiences when they’ve sought help from the university? Talk to your school’s Title IX coordinator about how the university responds. What are the challenges they face?
Be prepared to hear “student privacy,” “pending investigation” and “no comment” — a lot — as you write about this subject. And be prepared to push back. While it’s true that the Department of Education makes it a policy not to discuss details of pending investigations, the college is under no legal obligation to remain silent about anything (with the exception of identifying details about individual student complainants if they’ve requested confidentiality). Since Department of Education investigations can take years to conclude, colleges have a duty to keep their current students informed –now, not four years from now — about what problems they’re discovering and what’s being done to fix them.