Office of Civil Rights conducts review of Title IX policies

Allegheny one of 94 colleges under current review

In a Dec. 6 e-mail, President James Mullen alerted the Allegheny community that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights received a complaint regarding Allegheny College, placing the school under review for its sexual assault investigation processes.

At the time of the e-mail, the administration was preparing to gather the resources that the OCR requested, including college policy, training materials and cases of sexual assault investigations from the last three years, including the 2012-2013 academic year. According to Sue Gaylor, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the college, the first wave of document submissions has been completed and comprised of the college policy and training materials. The second wave will include sexual assault case documents from three years ago and the third will consist of the cases from the two previous academic years. Gaylor foresees all data submission being completed by the beginning of February.

As part of the review, the OCR will study Allegheny’s process of sexual assault investigation, starting with how employees and students are trained to handle situations, what the specific policies are and how well investigations are recorded and conducted.

“It’s very detailed, it’s almost like an audit…Everything associated with every case will be sent to OCR for their review,” Gaylor said.

After reviewing Allegheny’s data, phone interviews with administration and even on-campus focus groups will be conducted to get a better sense of how well policies are carried out from paper to process.

In the 2013-2014 academic year, the college had 10 cases involving unwanted sexual contact. These 10 cases led to six suspensions and four expulsions.

Due to the attention to detail, the OCR’s review may take as long as 18 months to three years. While as of Oct. 2014, there were 85 schools under investigation by the OCR, Gaylor stated that the current number is at 94, stretching the resources of the OCR thin.

“They don’t have a ton of resources so there could be periods in this process where it feels like not much is going on because we’re in a holding pattern, waiting for the next step,” Gaylor said.

However, while the investigation is an on-going and lengthy process, the fact that Allegheny is under review by the OCR is not anticipated to have any bearing on any sexual assault cases that may arise currently, according to Catherine Pope, Title IX Coordinator at Allegheny.

“Anything that is happening right now is not going to be affected by the outcome of this review,” Pope said. “I don’t anticipate, having spoken with my colleagues at other institutions, that certainly they would not instruct us to go back and change cases we are currently working on. That would not be within the purview of what they’re asking.”

A possible outcome of the OCR’s review would be a voluntary resolution agreement, in which the OCR provides constructive criticism as to how Allegheny’s policies should be updated to what OCR considers the best practice.

In this respect, the review provides room for Allegheny’s policies to improve, an aspect of the review that Mullen looks favorably upon.

“From my perspective as president, what I want to do is do anything we can do to be the strongest and best place, to offer the best policies…This is a list that I don’t think any institution seeks to be on but my belief is that if the Office of Civil Rights can identify ways we can be better, then we should embrace that,” Mullen said.

Mullen also expressed the hope that the OCR acknowledges the changes that Allegheny has made recently in an attempt to increase the college’s awareness of the issue and more directly address how well it handles investigations.

As part of the Great Lakes College Association, including Denison University and Kenyon College, Allegheny is the only school with a full-time Title IX position. With this new change and Pope’s training of three new investigators, Mullen believes that Allegheny has shown its dedication to Title IX topics and has plans for further improvement.

“A next step that we’re working on, that we will launch in the fall, is a peer education, sexual assault prevention training,” Pope said. “The way we’re going to pilot that in the fall semester is to work with student organization, to have them participate in the workshops for us as a way to launch that program on campus.”

An important aspect that Pope hopes to improve is the language provided in Allegheny’s Code of Student Conduct that describes the possible sanctions for students found responsible in these cases. Although Allegheny has no simple formula for determining the sanction, Pope hopes to provide examples of what types of cases would result in which sanctions.

“What we do not do in [the code of student conduct] is provide ‘if this, then this’ determinations,” Pope said. “From a policy perspective, you don’t want to completely pen yourself in because there’s always one case that doesn’t fit the descriptor. At the same time, I know there has been a lot of interest in having at least some examples.”

One change that is currently being discussed by administrators is removing students from the Title IX hearing boards. While it is temporarily instituted for the 2014-2015 school year, the Campus Life and Community Standards Committee is currently discussing making the change permanent as it is recommended by the OCR as a best practice.

Regardless of specific policies, the U.S. Department of Education requires schools to conduct investigations even if the complainant does not wish to pursue legal action, as it is separate from law enforcement and a matter of campus safety.

“It still is the responsibility of the college to move forward with that investigation, primarily for the safety of the community. That’s why that is in place: to make sure that if this crime has occurred…that our campus is safe,” Mullen said. “We need to find out what happened, we need to find out the circumstances, we need to figure if there’s been a violation and if so, what we need to do about it.”

As a campus community, Mullen also believes that each individual can work toward alleviating the issue and that while the topic of sexual assault often seems complex and difficult to discuss, it is a very simple matter.

“In so many ways, these are complex issues but in so many ways, they boil down to a simple thing…What I’ve tried to do from my office is remember what this is all about at the end of the day. It’s about respect for human dignity, it’s about respect for individuals,” Mullen said. “We need to send that message across this campus. There’s no defined process for it, you send a message of human dignity. All of this is about setting a foundation for how we treat each other, that’s step one.”

As OCR’s investigation at Allegheny continues, administrators will alert the campus community to any changes but reminds the community to be patient during the slow-going process. Pope, as full-time Title IX coordinator, hopes that any students who have questions or concerns regarding the review process or Title IX contact her.


Title IX Deputy Coordinators:

Jacquie Kondrot, Associate dean of students for wellness education

Patricia Ferrey, Director of human resources and EEO officer

Gilly Ford, Chief of staff

Angelo Panzetta, Men’s soccer coach

Armenta Hinton, Associate dean of the college, director of the CIASS

Mandy Prusia, Associate athletics director, compliance and internal operations

Ande Diaz, Associate provost for diversity and organizational development