The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights announced on Friday that it had reached a settlement with the University of Notre Dame about its handling of sexual-harassment cases. The deal is the first public step the office has taken in such matters since its "Dear Colleague" letter in April outlined how colleges should respond to allegations of sexual assault.
Robb Jones, senior vice president and general counsel for claims management at United Educators Insurance, a major insurer of colleges, says the department's investigation of Notre Dame is a significant first sign of how the letter will be applied: "cookbook style," he says, without much flexibility in evaluating colleges' policies.
In the voluntary settlement, the university agreed to better publicize how students can file complaints of sexual harassment, and the "preponderance of evidence" standard it uses to evaluate those allegations.
Campus officials must conclude their investigations of sexual-assault allegations within 60 days of receiving a complaint and must extend the right to appeal a decision to complainants. Currently only accused students can appeal.
Notre Dame also will accommodate complainants who do not want to be in the same room with their alleged assailants during disciplinary hearings.
The university had been criticized by students for not interviewing sexual assault suspects until weeks after complaints were filed, and for leaving cases unresolved for months, the Chicago Tribune reported.
In a statement, the university characterized the settlement as calling for Notre Dame to make "several minor modifications" to its existing practices. "The review has confirmed for us that we have outstanding initiatives in place, while also providing direction for several areas in which we can make modifications for improvement," the Rev. Thomas Doyle, vice president for student affairs, said in the statement.
'Shot Across the Bow'
The Office for Civil Rights said its investigation of whether Notre Dame was in violation of Title IX, a 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at colleges receiving federal funds, followed an internal review of cases previously filed against Notre Dame. The office's announcement noted that one case involved allegations by a female student that she had been sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame student. The complainant, who attended Saint Mary's College, the university's sister school, later committed suicide.
Asked what prompted the investigation, David Thomas, a spokesperson for the Education Department, wrote in an e-mail that the Office for Civil Rights "has the authority to initiate investigations of recipients to ensure compliance with our federal civil rights laws if OCR learns of information that may suggest a violation. This approach is not taken in every case, but where OCR receives information that raises a concern, this approach is appropriate."
Some observers, meanwhile, connected the settlement to the office's April letter to colleges.
"This is, in my view, directly related to the 'Dear Colleague' letter," says Robert B. Smith, a higher-education specialist at LeClairRyan, a law firm in Boston, who is a former associate general counsel at Boston University. "It is a companion enforcement piece meant to strengthen and get the word out to the higher-education community that the OCR means business. ... It's a shot across the bow to every college and university in the country."