The Yale Law Journal

VOLUME
125
2015-2016
NUMBER
7
May 2016
1820-2181
Feature

Transformation Requires Transparency: Critical Policy Reforms To Advance Campus Sexual Violence Response

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr

abstract. This Feature discusses the lack of transparency in campus adjudication of gender violence reports. It examines the harms caused by this procedural opacity to both accusing and accused students alike, including pervasive mistrust in the system and decreased reporting rates. The piece catalogues many of the criticisms raised by advocates from all sides surrounding the fairness of campus investigations and sanctioning, and addresses allegations of discriminatory treatment against minority communities. I argue that stakeholders will be unable to address these important concerns—and thus fully vindicate the equality principles central to Title IX—without a strong, federal requirement for increased transparency on campuses. I offer a proposal for what this mandate should be comprised of, including methods for ensuring that student privacy is protected.

author. Deputy Director at Know Your IX; Chair of the Fund for a Safer Columbia; Co-Founder of the Carry That Weight Campaign; Lead Complainant in the Title IX investigation of her alma mater, Columbia University. She thanks her mothers, for everything.


Introduction

The current debate surrounding campus adjudication of gender violence has painted a picture of two warring factions: in one corner are the feminists battling for greater awareness of sexual violence and campus processes that center on victims’ needs, and in the other are critics who argue schools have overcorrected to the point of discriminating against accused students. The present discourse suggests that students who are making accusations of gender violence and students against whom such allegations are made have mutually exclusive interests. But there is an area where all students share a common interest: ensuring fair and transparent campus disciplinary processes.

As a result of tremendous national attention over the past few years to sexual and dating violence in schools, initiatives to improve school disciplinary policies have emerged across the country at both the school and governmental levels. Sexual and dating violence occurs on college campuses with disturbing frequency: one in five female students report being sexually assaulted during college;1 nineteen percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming students report having experienced sexual assault or misconduct;2 and college-aged women are the group most likely to experience dating violence.3 Thus far, efforts to confront this violence have focused on prevention and response, both of which are critical elements of addressing epidemic levels of violence and inadequate institutional responses.4 But the experiences of student survivors who attempt to report to their schools, of advocates pushing for improved policies, and of critics who argue that accused students have been wronged in the process show us that new policies will only be cosmetic unless these reform efforts include rigorous transparency requirements. A fair campus process benefits both accused and accusing students; however, as I will show, it is impossible to assess and ensure the fairness of these systems without transparency requirements.

This Feature argues that there is a troubling lack of transparency and accountability in the processes colleges and universities use to address campus sexual and dating violence. This opacity creates a culture of impunity for campus officials entrusted with ensuring the safety of students and further stokes critiques from those who argue for more robust rights for accused students. I discuss a number of concrete ways in which the current lack of transparency regarding college disciplinary processes creates challenges for both accused and accusing students. Both groups argue that these processes lead to unfair investigations and discrimination against particular populations. However, these difficulties are not intractable; federal legislation can require transparency to better serve all students. In this Feature, I draw on a recent New York State law mandating increased campus transparency as a promising example, which could be improved upon and implemented nationwide. This law requires colleges and universities to release aggregate, anonymized data regarding the adjudication of campus gender violence reports while also addressing the issue of student privacy, and it should serve as a template for a more comprehensive transparency mandate at the national level.

Concern over how colleges and universities handle gender violence complaints has reached a fever pitch. Students who have experienced sexual and dating violence on campus are condemning school disciplinary responses as unfair and ineffective, and student activist groups—like No Red Tape5 and the Carry That Weight Campaign,6 which I helped found at Columbia University—have gained visibility and momentum in their efforts to change campus policies and culture.7 At the same time, students accused of rape have also levied concerns about the fairness of campus procedures; these concerns are surprisingly similar to those raised by survivors.8 Both groups have complained about the length of investigations, the protocol for submitting evidence or calling witnesses, the fairness of sanctions, and the partiality of adjudicators.9 Some accused students are even filing Title IX suits alleging that their schools persecuted male students.10 Elected officials are scrambling to propose competing bills addressing perceived deficits in campus procedures.11 Meanwhile, law professors at elite universities are slamming policies they see as unfair to accused parties.12 The only thing that anyone appears to agree on is this: whatever schools are doing now, they are getting it wrong.

This is an important moment for those invested in the safety of students and the fairness of campus policies to pause and consider the basis for these arguments. Whether groups are advocating for harsher penalties for perpetrators or increased procedural protections, the remarkable opacity of campus disciplinary processes means that all of these claims currently lack a demonstrable empirical basis. Few, if any, stakeholders have access to the information that would be necessary to make substantive and quantitatively significant evaluations of campus responses to gender violence reports.

I. procedural opacity has harmful consequences

The current lack of transparency has a clear, direct impact on the credibility of campus disciplinary processes. In the eyes of both accused and accusing students, the policies that schools follow—or claim to follow—when responding to a report of sexual or dating violence are shrouded in secrecy and vigorously guarded from public exposure. Students report that the lack of clarity often continues even during the process of an investigation. This kind of secrecy is harmful to all students. It creates a culture of impunity for campus officials, who are free to make mistakes without facing consequences. These mistakes—whether the results of deliberate attempts to cover up reports, subconscious biases, or lack of training and expertise—can have devastating consequences for students on either side of an investigation. Secrecy stokes mistrust of the process and intensifies suspicions of administrative abuses, which in turn discourages students from coming forward to report and seek the help they need after experiencing rape or abuse on campus. And lastly, whether the ultimate ruling is in favor of the accusing or accused student, this lack of transparency and trust delegitimizes the outcomes of all cases.

Only about half of all students surveyed recently at twenty-seven colleges and universities across the United States believed it very or extremely likely that a fair investigation would occur after a report of sexual assault or misconduct. This number was markedly lower for the groups most likely to be victimized, namely female and transgender or gender-nonconforming students.13 Of students who experienced non-consensual sexual penetration and chose not to report, about a third indicated this was because they “did not think anything would be done about it.”14 This lack of confidence is exacerbated, if not caused by, the extreme lack of transparency on most campuses. Schools cannot expect students, or their parents or attorneys, to trust a system that is so deliberately opaque and plagued by stories of negligence and bias. The current dearth of information creates distrust from all sides and invites critiques that campus processes are arbitrary and unfair.

Though we lack comprehensive or quantitative information regarding the outcomes of school disciplinary processes, there is abundant qualitative and anecdotal evidence that schools are enforcing neither their own policy requirements or stated ethical standards,15 nor those required by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), Title IX, and/or state laws. This lack of enforcement by schools is evidenced by the remarkably high number of schools under investigation for violating these policies and the increasingly frequent findings of noncompliance in these investigations.16 As a survivor of sexual assault on campus and a student activist at Columbia University, I saw firsthand the disturbing disconnect between Columbia’s publicly stated policies and values and the way school officials actually handled complaints of sexual and dating violence.17 As a result, I worked with a group of twenty-seven other students to write and file a Title IX complaint against the school in April 2014, outlining dozens of cases in which we argued that the school allowed violent perpetrators (including serial rapists) to remain on campus;18 discriminated against LGBTQ survivors in particular;19 forced survivors to take mental health leaves, instead of addressing their rape reports; failed to provide critical resources and protection for students; retaliated against students who attempted to report; and otherwise violated the school’s own policies as well as federal laws in handling reports of sexual and dating violence.20 In my national advocacy work, I see heated, personal, high-stakes debates playing out about the fairness of college adjudication systems. There is no question as to whether the campus disciplinary procedures are working appropriately—they are not. The questions that remain unanswered are: to whomand in what ways are they unfair, and how can we address these concerns? As it currently stands, we lack sufficient quantitative data necessary to conclusively answer any of these questions and effect critical reforms.

Stories like mine have become disturbingly commonplace: the anecdotal evidence that schools are failing to appropriately handle reports of sexual and dating violence on campus is plentiful. However, if the goal is to hold schools to higher standards for their prevention and response policies, anecdotal examples are insufficient. Students and parents need more than anecdotal evidence to evaluate how individual schools are doing; victims and accused students need more to ensure their cases are being treated fairly; advocates and policymakers need more to design effective solutions and hold schools accountable. Data, where available, is an essential tool for evaluating an individual school’s response to sexual violence on its campus.

However, the data currently available is collected largely in the aggregate rather than at the individual campus level and lacks critical metrics, such as the length of investigations or the number of students sanctioned for misconduct. This reduces the data’s usefulness in designing campus-specific reforms. For example, the Jeanne Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires all colleges and universities to release annual security reports tallying the number of crimes reported on or near campus.21 But schools are not required to release any information about how these reports are ultimately addressed or any aggregate information regarding the identity of the parties involved, such as whether the majority of perpetrators are students. The Clery Act scheme is woefully insufficient.

Other data sources provide some insights but also fail to provide important campus-specific information. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill recently commissioned a report to assess how colleges and universities report, investigate, and adjudicate sexual violence reports. The survey, which was completed by 440 four-year colleges and universities, was released on July 9, 2014.22 It provides some quantitative insight into the current practices and attitudes of campus administrators. The report points out that, even though federal law requires that any school made aware of a student allegation of sexual assault on its campus must take affirmative steps to investigate that claim, more than “40% of schools in the national sample have not conducted a single investigation in the past five years . . . [and] 20% of the nation’s largest private institutions conducted fewer investigations than the number of incidents they reported,” with multiple institutions reporting as many as seven times more incidents of sexual violence than they have investigated.23

Another analysis found that, even when reports were investigated and perpetrators found responsible for sexual assault, less than one-third of students were expelled. Approximately forty-seven percent of students found responsible for sexual assault were given suspensions and then allowed to return to campus, at least seventeen percent received educational sanctions, and thirteen percent were placed on probation.24

These reports provide valuable big-picture data illustrating the scope and dimensions of the many flaws in campus disciplinary procedures, but they fail to provide the campus-specific information that would allow for meaningful comparisons and inform ongoing policy improvements. This Feature calls for that to change.

II. procedural opacity prevents us from answering critical questions

A. Are Campuses Investigating and Sanctioning Cases Fairly?

Both those who allege sexual assault as well as those accused characterize college disciplinary procedures as subjecting students to unfair and inappropriate processes for investigating, adjudicating, and sanctioning incidences of sexual assault. Students also criticize their schools for violating both existing laws and their own campus policies.25

In fact, at least 174 colleges and universities are currently under investigation for violating Title IX in sexual and dating violence cases,26hundreds more are facing public criticism and student protest,27 and many students have brought lawsuits against colleges claiming unfair and biased adjudication of sexual assault and harassment claims.28

Many survivors of sexual violence and their advocates argue that schools are biased in favor of protecting the reputation of the school. As a result, survivors contend, schools sweep sexual violence allegations under the rug and hand down lenient sanctions for perpetrators.29 After a campus newspaper published a lengthy article detailing slow, poorly handled investigations of campus sexual assault that left survivors without critical resources and perpetrators sanctioned with little more than a slap on the wrist,30 a group of students at Columbia University circulated a petition calling on the school to release aggregate, anonymized data on the outcomes of reported gender violence cases.31 After nearly a year of protest, Columbia released a report in 2014, which revealed, among other things, that investigations consistently took longer than the sixty days allowed by both federal guidance32 and Columbia’s own policy,33 and indicated that the school had expelled zero students found to have committed sexual assault that year.34 At Amherst College, too, student protesters successfully pushed the school to release data regarding the adjudication of campus sexual assault. The college released a report covering a three-year period (2009-2011)35 showing that, in multiple instances, students who committed laptop theft were punished more severely than those who committed rape and sexual assault,36 and that not a single student found responsible for sexual assault was expelled.37 Student activists, angered by these reports, organized demonstrations condemning the college’s lenience.38 And currently, student activists at Gustavus Adolphus College are protesting and petitioning the school to release aggregate sanctioning data after a survivor alleged publicly that the school sanctioned her rapist by requiring him to write a 500-word reflective essay.39 These examples illustrate the claims being made at schools across the country regarding the length, fairness, and transparency of investigations and sanctioning.

The severity and consistency of sanctions in sexual and dating violence cases is a hotly contested issue, and student activists at Columbia and Amherst are not the only ones concerned. Accused students and their lawyers increasingly claim schools have swung too far in the other direction and are flouting procedural protections and over-penalizing students.40A growing number of accused students have filed lawsuits41 under Title IX, alleging gender discrimination and unfairly aggressive and biased adjudication of sexual assault and harassment claims.42The complaints in these lawsuits often include concerns similar to those raised by survivors and their advocates around the length of investigations and the clarity and fairness of the investigation process, with a notable exception: these students argue the sanctions being handed down are too harsh, rather than too lenient.43The advocacy organization Boys and Men in Education estimates that at least ninety men have filed such lawsuits against their schools in recent years, and their website lambasts campus processes where young men have “found themselves hustled through a vague and misshapen adjudication process with slipshod checks and balances.”44

Janet Halley, a Harvard Law professor who has participated in both advocatory and adjudicatory roles in Harvard University’s sexual misconduct processes, has written publicly about her concerns with the treatment of accused students in campus disciplinary proceedings. Halley alleges that she has witnessed “witch hunt” conditions on campus, in which school officials are caving to the demands of overzealous, single-minded feminist activists by unfairly punishing male students and depriving them of access to education.45 I believe these claims to be far from the truth based on my work with student survivors and activists across the country who have described a pervasive institutional reluctance to take any action against perpetrators of violence, let alone remove them from campus. But each of these students and advocates is speaking from their own anecdotal perspective, and I from mine. Without greater access to information on the outcomes of campus investigations, none of us have the empirical information necessary to demonstrate our own claims or refute the others’.

We cannot evaluate the veracity of allegations on either side or develop an equitable standard for responding to sexual assault without a clear body of evidence that permits comparison between the severity of sanctions applied to different individuals on the same campus, or between the average severity of sanctions applied to students at one school and those applied to students at another. When schools refuse to disclose this information, especially on an issue as controversial as sanctions, student suspicion that schools deliberately cover up lenient or excessive responses to sexual violence intensifies and student distrust is exacerbated. Stakeholders are unable to evaluate whether a school is improving its policies; students who are party to a reported case are not able to assess whether they are being treated fairly; and prospective students and their families are unable to compare a college’s handling of these cases to that of other colleges.46 Greater transparency in these processes is an essential step towards evaluating the current approaches to campus investigations and sanctioning, and ensuring their fairness in the future.

B. Are Campuses Discriminating Against Specific Communities?

Concerns about fairness are particularly pronounced for certain communities: as both accused and accusing parties in campus cases have noted, the procedural opacity that currently shrouds the campus adjudication system may also be concealing discriminatory treatment of particular populations.47 For example, there are concerns that campus adjudication processes may discriminate against students based on their gender identity, sexual orientation, or race.

The DOE has issued guidance to colleges and universities to make clear that Title IX protections apply to all students, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.48 However, many students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) report that their school officials fail to appropriately respond to reports of sexual violence and harassment made by LGBTQ students and are more likely to mishandle these complaints or dismiss them altogether.

Princess Harmony-Jazmyne Rodriguez, for example, was a student at Temple University when she reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault in 2014. According to her reports, her school allowed a hostile environment to exist when university officials failed to respond appropriately to the rape, violence, and harassment she experienced (including harassment based on her gender nonconformity), allowed harassment and stalking to continue without intervening, refused to provide her with accommodations and resources, and discriminated against her as a transgender woman.49 While the text of this Title IX complaint is not publicly available, the complainant has commented that she filed a Title IX complaint because the campus administrators tasked with investigating her case “were not equipped to deal with trans survivors” and that they failed to address her complaints and safety concerns because of her gender identity. As she reports, one administrator told her that providing her with assistance would have been “the same as helping a male and [they] could not do that.”50 From Columbia to Tufts to Dartmouth, LGBTQ students at many schools have reported experiencing similar discriminatory mistreatment.51

Though the experiences of these survivors detailed in press reports provide credible evidence that these schools have failed to appropriately respond to transgender or gay and lesbian students who experienced sexual violence, there is no information available to compare the treatment of these survivors with the respective treatment of cisgender or heterosexual students making similar reports, or to assess whether this kind of discriminatory treatment may be occurring on a larger scale.

Another concern is whether accused students who belong to racial or ethnic minority groups are receiving unfair treatment in campus disciplinary processes. In recent months, advocates for racial justice have organized and spoken out publicly to call attention to the bias and brutality that people of color, and African Americans in particular, experience within the United States’ legal system.52 The record of our criminal legal system is replete with evidence that people of color are subjected to biased treatment: from a lengthy and ever-growing list of black people killed by police officers;53 the staggering racial disparities of who is arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of crimes;54 marked differences in the severity of sentences imposed on defendants of different races;55 to numerous examples throughout history of black men wrongfully incarcerated after accusations of raping white women.56To vindicate the educational equity interests at the heart of Title IX, it is imperative that policymakers ensure these failures are not replicated in campus disciplinary procedures.

Professor Halley of Harvard Law School notes specifically in her writing that she has witnessed a disturbing number of frequent and unfairly addressed reports being made against male students of color.57 At the University of Findlay in Ohio, for example, two black male students are suing their school after being expelled for sexual assault. Their complaint alleges that they were mistreated and persecuted because of their race, noting that the school failed to follow its standard policies for investigating sexual assault and expelled them just two days after the report against them was filed. They also allege that, to their knowledge, “the only other students expelled from the university for sexual assault were other African-Americans, each accused by white women.”58These concerns regarding disproportionately aggressive adjudication of reports made against students of racial and ethnic minorities threaten the educational equity principles at the very heart of Title IX and thus merit close examination.

Efforts to ensure that schools take reports of rape and abuse more seriously must not excuse or facilitate racial bias in campus disciplinary procedures. Unfortunately, the status quo at most colleges and universities makes it impossible to understand the injustices that advocates believe may be occurring on campuses. There is little to no quantitative data available at the campus or governmental levels that would allow any assessment of racial patterns in the frequency of reports, outcomes of investigations, severity of sanctions imposed, or success of appeals filed. In order to effectively protect the rights of all students to access their education free from gender violence, racism, and other forms of discrimination, schools must be held accountable for tracking and releasing data on the demographics of complainants and respondents and the outcomes of cases.

The bottom line is this: we simply do not know the truth. Which of these claims, if any, are accurate? Are schools failing to provide transgender students with access to reporting options and accommodations that they provide to cisgender students? Are they treating accused African American men more harshly than those of other races? Are they more frequently dismissing reports raised by students of color than by students who are white? Without access to more comprehensive data, these claims cannot be evaluated and the extent to which schools are engaging in discriminatory treatment of particular groups cannot be assessed or addressed.

III. solution: a robust legislative mandate for increased transparency

When campuses refuse to release anonymous data regarding their disciplinary processes, their decision impedes efforts to address the prevalence of sexual violence and its impact on many students. Both accusing and accused students in active cases are denied access to information from which to compare the outcomes of similar allegations. This stymies any attempt to parse out differential treatment or discrimination against either party. Further, there is no body of evidence at the national level that would allow for comparisons between campuses, to evaluate, for example, how Columbia treated a rape finding compared to Brown or Oregon State. This kind of comparison would be useful to prospective students and their families who are considering where to enroll in college and is critical for policymakers who are responsible for ensuring student safety. And with the current dearth of data, we cannot evaluate whether schools are actually adhering to their own policies, their stated community values, or a number of existing legislative mandates unless schools are required to release more information about how they handle reports of gender violence.

In order to craft effective, forward-looking solutions to the sexual assault crisis, it is essential that schools prioritize the issue of transparency in campus disciplinary procedures. I recommend federal legislative action to address this. Every college and university should be required by federal law to publicly release anonymized data regarding the outcomes of sexual misconduct reports, including demographic information regarding the parties to complaints. This mandate should include a mechanism by which the DOE can monitor and enforce compliance with this requirement. I advise that these measures be passed through federal law rather than addressed in campus policies because a national requirement will help ensure consistency in data aggregation and reporting that will allow for comparisons to be made between campuses. Furthermore, schools’ poor track records in handling reports of sexual violence and their demonstrated unwillingness to follow their own policies59 illustrate that schools cannot be relied upon to implement and adhere to their own transparency requirements; decisive action on the part of lawmakers is required.

Policymakers at every level need to improve the existing systems for addressing campus sexual assault and increase trust in those systems. The DOE has used increased transparency mandates as a means to improve the quality of and public confidence in educational institutions and related entities across a variety of issues, which provides a useful model for a transparency directive. For example, recent debates over the accreditation process for for-profit colleges led the DOE to mandate a series of measures designed to increase the data available to the public regarding the accreditation process and individual school outcomes across student performance indicators.60 In a press release published on its website, the Department explained: “By publishing key student outcome measures for each institution alongside its accreditor, we hope to indicate the performance of all colleges and universities in each accreditor’s institutional portfolio relevant to those measures.”61 According to the DOE, requiring the release of aggregate data regarding student demographics and performance outcomes will help ensure accreditors are held accountable for employing fair practices and individual schools are held accountable for providing quality educational experiences for their students. In response to federal complaints that public schools discriminate against African American students by punishing them more frequently and more harshly than white students, DOE has also required schools to collect data on student disciplinary cases, including the sanctions imposed, the school official responsible for imposing the sanctions, and demographic information on the students involved. These schools have also been required to report this data annually to the DOE and evaluate it themselves in an effort to ensure that “the [school] District is implementing its student discipline policies, practices and procedures in a non-discriminatory manner.”62 These same lessons can be applied to improving the quality of and confidence in educational institutions’ handling of gender violence reports on campus.

Notably, the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights has only recently made public the list of schools under investigation for violating Title IX and has also started to publish the findings at the conclusion of an investigation.63 These are important steps towards greater transparency at the national level and should be replicated at the campus level.

While schools are now required to implement prevention programs and adopt more comprehensive response policies, there are few, if any, legislative mandates requiring schools to evaluate or release information about how they actually handle reports of sexual violence in practice. Lawmakers and governmental agencies may—and should—continue to advance new laws and guidelines to help address the urgent concerns of students. But without clear and enforceable requirements for transparency and accountability, these changes are doomed to be little more than cosmetic. To protect all students, legislation is needed that includes clear, comprehensive, and public requirements for more transparent campus processes. In order to design an effective, equitable solution, policymakers should address several key factors in developing a legislative mandate.

A. Any Solutions Must Address Privacy Concerns

Important privacy considerations must be squarely addressed in developing a legislative transparency mandate. Survivors and accused students alike have expressed fears that the data released could potentially include enough information to identify them. Advocates for survivors have expressed concern that releasing this kind of data might deter reporting, if survivors worry that their private information might be released.64

A strong transparency mandate will require schools to take precautions against releasing any individually identifying information. Existing federal laws are already in place to ensure that students’ personal information is protected, and new transparency requirements should be designed to be compatible with these policies. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) governs the privacy rights of students regarding their educational record; it guarantees student protections from the release of their educational records and gives them the right to have control over the disclosure of personally identifiable information from the records.65Importantly, FERPA explicitly states that these privacy rights do not apply when a student is found by the official school process to have committed sexual assault.66 While it would certainly be unethical to release any identifying information about an accused party if the allegations had not been substantiated, schools are, in fact, permitted to release identifying information after a student is found responsible for sexual misconduct. These considerations should inform the development of privacy protections within a transparency mandate.

Thus, to respect the privacy rights of all students involved, schools must take careful precautions to remove individually identifying information from their reports. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has compiled expert guidance on the process of de-identifying information for public releases related to individual health records.67 A similar DOE initiative would be useful to ensure that schools can most effectively increase transparency without jeopardizing the individual privacy rights of students.

Additionally, policymakers must ensure that new laws are drafted with a careful eye towards enshrining legislative standards that balance the important needs for both privacy and transparency. Smaller schools will need to be particularly careful when determining how to release this data. The recently released reports of the American Association of Universities’ Campus Climate Survey, in which twenty-eight schools surveyed their student bodies about sexual and dating violence on campuses and publicly released the results, could provide a useful example.68 In order to ensure that the publicly released information did not include any identifiable information about student respondents, report authors and individual schools consulted with statisticians and social scientists to develop an appropriate protocol.69 While the details of this protocol are not publicly available, a similar process could be used for releasing aggregate data on each campus’s disciplinary process in a manner that protects individual privacy.

B. Models Provide Guidance Opportunities

There has been movement towards strengthening transparency requirements in several key legislative arenas.70 Recently passed New York Senate Bill S5965—dubbed the “Enough Is Enough” Bill—illustrates that mandating increased transparency in the campus gender violence context is a feasible project.71 Among other things, this law requires every college and university in the state to release to the State Education Department aggregate data about reports of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, or sexual assault. 72 This includes the total number of reports received, open and closed investigations, outcomes of such investigations, and penalties imposed on perpetrators.73 Though this data only captures some of the information necessary for a comprehensive legislative solution to the numerous problems I have detailed in this Feature (notably, it does not capture any demographic data or specify how or when the data will be made public), it provides a promising example of a serious effort to mandate increased transparency.

Legislation recently proposed at the federal level has also attempted to address transparency concerns, but falls short of providing sufficiently robust information. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, introduced by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, would require schools to annually release data regarding the number of reports filed, the number of cases opened, and limited information regarding the outcome of investigations, including the findings and sanctions imposed. However, the proposal fails to account for the number of cases handled through an alternative process to a formal investigation, such as an informal resolution; the time taken to resolve cases; whether any appeal was filed and its outcome; or the identity of decision makers or composition of hearing panels. The bill does require that the information be released publicly in the school’s annual Clery report, and it responds to concerns about protecting individual privacy by clearly stating that the information released “shall not identify victims of crimes or persons accused of crimes.”74

C. Transparency: The Specifics

An effective legislative mandate that schools publish anonymized data on the adjudication process for reports of gender-based violence each year would help to address the troubling lack of transparency and ultimately improve disciplinary outcomes. This data should be comprised of several pieces.

1. Information Regarding the Investigation and Sanctioning of Cases

This data would allow stakeholders to evaluate whether schools are promptly adjudicating reports, evaluate the severity of sanctions handed down, and otherwise understand how each school addresses gender violence reports. It would also allow for comparisons between similar cases heard at a single school, or between cases heard at different schools, to watch for differential treatment and consistency. It should include:

(a)The number of reports filed;

(b)The type of process used to resolve each report (i.e., informal resolution or formal investigation);

(c)The number of investigations opened;

(d)The policy violation(s) alleged;

(e)The determination made;

(f)The sanctions imposed;

(g)Any changes made to the determinations or sanctions as a result of an appeal;

(h)The length of each case;

(i)The names of the decision makers responsible for findings, sanctioning, and appeals.

2. Demographic Information on the Involved Parties

This information will provide a body of data that will help stakeholders determine whether particular groups are being targeted or given preferential treatment. Such demographic information is already collected and released in other areas of higher education policy to ensure fairness and equal treatment. For example, schools release racial demographic information about their student body, and this is used to understand the achievements and barriers to academic success for minority groups.75 Careful steps should be taken in this section in particular to avoid releasing any individually identifying information. It should include information regarding:

(a)The type of party against which the allegation was made (i.e., student, faculty member, fraternity);

(b)The racial identity of the parties involved;

(c)The gender identity of the parties involved.

3. Information Regarding Interim Measures and the Long-Term Outcomes for Students Who Filed Reports of Gender Violence

Other authors in this Symposium have detailed the severe impacts that experiencing gender violence can have on a student’s long-term success and noted the structural and economic barriers that can preclude students from receiving the resources they need to continue their education. In order to more comprehensively evaluate the extent of these issues and each school’s efforts to meet their obligations under Title IX, transparency requirements should also include information about the academic consequences of reporting incidents of gender violence and the provision of interim measures. Some schools are already releasing some of this data willingly; for example, the University of Michigan included information about interim measures in its 2013-2014 Student Sexual Misconduct Annual Report.76 This information should include:

(a)The number and type of interim measures provided to complainants;

(b)The total number of reporting students who experienced any of the following after experiencing gender violence:

(i) withdrawal from a class,

(ii) being put on academic probation,

(iii) taking a medical or voluntary leave of absence, or

(iv) transferring schools or otherwise withdrawing completely.

Additionally, an effective legislative solution will include mechanisms to monitor compliance, the funding to implement such mechanisms, and substantive consequences for schools found in noncompliance. The startling and ever-climbing number of schools currently under investigation for Title IX violations—161 schools as of January 201677—shows colleges and universities have demonstrated a comfort with violating existing rules and regulations. Further, a startling number of schools have shown a disregard for other transparency issues in higher education policy. For example, a number of colleges and universities have routinely falsified admissions data in response to federal inquiries and have faced few, if any, consequences as a result. In 2013, at least six top colleges and universities admitted to falsifying multiple years’ worth of information sent to the DOE, their own accrediting agencies, and U.S. News.78 Clearly, any new reporting and transparency requirements will require proactive enforcement to ensure their effectiveness.

Requiring the release of this data will help ensure that students, parents, and policymakers understand how the adjudication process in a given school operates in practice. It will also provide the information necessary for stakeholders to evaluate whether the school officials’ actions are consistent with their own written policies, existing laws and guidance from governmental bodies, and the ethical standards of individual stakeholders like parents of students or faculty members.

Conclusion

Clearly, the current methods of investigating and adjudicating sexual and dating violence on college campuses are not working. Accused and accusing students alike lack confidence in the processes and feel discriminated against by their outcomes. Though claims of unfair treatment abound on both sides, there is little to no empirical evidence to evaluate these claims, nor is there sufficient data to inform policy reforms. This highlights the need for legislation that requires such information to be released. The availability of such information would help identify systemic policy issues and ensure fair treatment of all parties. Experience demonstrates that without robust and carefully constructed requirements for transparency and accountability, schools can continue violating the law and their own policies with impunity. This harms both survivors of violence and accused students. In order to more fully vindicate the educational equity promised by Title IX, it is essential that policymakers advance legislative solutions immediately requiring increased transparency from schools. The safety of students depends on it.