January 28, 1999
An important shared goal of educators throughout our country is to ensure that students have a safe and secure environment that is conducive to learning and that affords students equal educational opportunities regardless of their sex. Colleges and universities have a critical responsibility for preventing and eliminating sexual harassment discrimination. Sexual harassment of a student, if not appropriately addressed, can have serious, detrimental consequences for the student, impedes the student's education, and constitutes a breach of trust between the school and the student.
A recent Supreme Court decision took notice of the "extraordinary harm" that a student suffers when subjected to sexual harassment and abuse by a teacher. The Court emphasized that such conduct by a teacher "undermines the basic purposes of the educational system." Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (June 22, 1998). The Gebser decision limited the availability of damages to a student in a private Title IX lawsuit against a school district. It did not, however, alter the fundamental obligations of educational institutions and their employees to take prompt action to address instances of sexual harassment. Moreover, these obligations apply to colleges and universities as well as to school districts. This letter summarizes existing obligations and the effect of the Supreme Court decision.
Title IX Prohibits Sexual Harassment Discrimination
The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which has the responsibility for enforcing Title IX, recently provided educational institutions with a detailed discussion of their responsibilities to prevent and, when it occurs, remedy sexual harassment of students. A copy of the guidance is available on the Department's web site at <http://www.ed.gov/offices/OCR/docs/sexhar00.html>.
Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities operated by schools that receive federal financial assistance. Therefore, colleges and universities are responsible under Title IX to provide students with a nondiscriminatory educational environment. As described in the guidance, sexual harassment of a student may violate this obligation.1 When a student files a complaint, or a responsible school employee such as an
1 In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the Supreme Court, this term, will examine the issue of whether a school violates Title IX when it is deliberately indifferent to repeated complaints of peer sexual.
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administrator, professor, or Title IX coordinator otherwise learns of possible sexual harassment discrimination by others, Title IX requires the school immediately to investigate, to take appropriate steps to end the harassment, to eliminate the effects of the harassment, and to prevent the harassment from recurring.
The Department's Title IX regulation also requires colleges and universities to have well-publicized policies against discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment discrimination; to have effective and well-publicized procedures for students to raise and resolve these issues; and to take prompt and effective action to equitably resolve sexual harassment discrimination complaints. 34 CFR Part 106.8. In addition, colleges and universities are required to designate at least one employee to coordinate and carry out their Title IX responsibilities. Id. I encourage you to publicize and reaffirm these policies and procedures in ways that will assure all students and employees have access to this information.
The Gebser Decision Addresses Private Damages Claims
The Court's recent decision in Gebser was limited to private Title IX lawsuits for money damages. The Court in Gebser ruled that a private plaintiff in a court action can obtain money damages against a school district under Title IX if a school official who has the authority to take corrective action has actual notice of sexual harassment and is deliberately indifferent to it. The Gebser decision recognized the continuing ability of the Department to enforce Title IX and its implementing regulation through administrative procedures. Thus, the obligations of schools, including colleges and universities, that receive federal funds to address instances of sexual harassment have not changed as a result of the Supreme Court decision. Schools must continue to take reasonable steps to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment discrimination. In addition, pursuant to its published guidance, OCR will continue to enforce Title IX in this area, including investigating complaints alleging sexual harassment discrimination.
OCR Offers Technical Assistance
Sexual harassment discrimination can have serious, detrimental consequences for students. Thus, colleges and universities need to take the problem of sexual harassment very seriously. In addition to having well-publicized policies and procedures in place, colleges and universities should be taking preventative steps to identify problems -- such as training staff to recognize and report potential harassment -- and to follow up on any information indicating potential discrimination. OCR welcomes the opportunity to provide individual colleges and universities upon request with technical assistance and practical guidance to develop preventative programs.
The Department is committed to continuing our leadership role in ensuring equal educational opportunities for all students. The Department will continue to work with schools, students and other interested parties to ensure that colleges and universities have effective policies and procedures in place to prevent sexual harassment. I have attached a contact list for OCR's regional offices for your convenience.
Thank you for your interest in this critical issue.
Richard W. Riley
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This page last updated March 17, 1999 (pjk)