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Should Teachers Include Reporting Information on their Syllabi?
Posted by On Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Last week the White House released the first report from its Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. (Read our post on it here.) Alongside the report, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) released a 53 page document titled “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence.”

The Task Force’s report and OCR’s guidance both reminded schools of the importance of encouraging students to report sexual violence as well as the legal duty of “responsible” school employees to report.

In light of recent recommendations from the Task Force and guidelines from the OCR, students at George Washington University (GW) have suggested that teachers’ syllabi should also include basic information about reporting sexual misconduct on campus.

A syllabus has become much more than a list of readings and assignments for a course. It often includes details about classroom conduct and grading, as well as statements about accessibility, equality, and counseling resources.

Nearly every instructor spends 20-30 minutes reviewing their syllabus on the first day of class. The extra time that they would have to spend to cover a short statement on sexual misconduct would be minimal, but it would mean that students are given critical reporting information every term, an effective way to distribute it widely and on an ongoing basis.

As Scott Berkowitz, the president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), noted, putting the information on a syllabus can also help students retain the information:

We’ve found that people don’t ever expect to need a service like this. They tend not to hold onto information about sexual assault services. But they are going to hold onto a syllabus, since they need it for other purposes.

Berkowitz also noted that having the information widely available can make it less awkward for students to look it up when they do need to consult it.

Below is an example of what this statement might look like:

A Note on Sexual Misconduct

Our school is committed to fostering a safe, productive learning environment. Title IX and our school policy prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Sexual misconduct — including harassment, domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking — is also prohibited at our school.

Our school encourages anyone experiencing sexual misconduct to talk to someone about what happened, so they can get the support they need and our school can respond appropriately.

If you wish to speak confidentially about an incident of sexual misconduct, please contact one of the following resources [insert name and contact information of confidential campus resources]

If you wish to report sexual misconduct or have questions about school policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct, please contact our school’s Title IX coordinator [insert name and/or contact information of Title IX coordinator]

Our school is legally obligated to investigate reports of sexual misconduct, and therefore it cannot guarantee the confidentiality of a report, but it will consider a request for confidentiality and respect it to the extent possible.

As a teacher, I am also required by our school to report incidents of sexual misconduct and thus cannot guarantee confidentiality. I must provide our Title IX coordinator with relevant details such as the names of those involved in the incident.

The beginning of a class probably isn’t the time to make students cover the school’s entire sexual misconduct policy. But a short statement like the one above provides students with essential information about what conduct is prohibited, confidentiality, and how to report.

Confidentiality is a particularly important issue to cover, since many teachers may have a duty to report. According to the OCR’s FAQ, responsible employees must tell students their duty to report “before a student reveals information that he or she may wish to keep confidential” [emphasis added]. How that would work in practice is less clear, since a.) it may be hard to tell what a student is about to reveal, and b.) such a disclosure on the part of the employee may discourage the student from reporting or even talking about the event.

By covering the issue at the beginning of the semester, teachers can explain confidentiality issues and show that the school is serious about tackling sexual misconduct.

If a not on syllabi seems too onerous, another possibility is to ask students to read a short statement (like the one above) before they register for classes. Many schools already do something similar for a statement of academic integrity.

As the White House report suggests, this issue can only be tackled through a coordinated effort. Schools need to look to a broad array of strategies and measures they can implement to ensure their students know campus policies and procedures. Finding opportunities, such as instructors’ syllabi, seems one easy way to keep students informed and to convey the school’s commitment to this serious issue.

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Does Your Syllabus Violate Title IX?
Posted by On Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) might have violated Title IX by prohibiting a pregnant student from having more than one medical emergency during the semester.

The National Women’s Law Center  filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of Stephanie Stewart, an honors student studying on an academic scholarship at Borough of Manhattan Community College in the CUNY system, claiming discrimination and retaliation under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy.

According to the complaint, Stewart informed her professors that she was pregnant and might miss classes and assignments because of medical emergencies associated with her pregnancy. She wasn’t asking to be excused from assignments, only to be allowed to make up missed work and tests.

Stewart claimed that four of her five professors had no problems accommodating her. One professor, however, allegedly refused to change her policy against make-up tests or assignments.

The complaint alleges that Stewart’s professor explained that she didn’t include a student’s lowest test score when calculating the final grade, so missing one exam due to an emergency wouldn’t be a problem. But, according to an email provided with the NWLC’s complaint, the professor wrote, “What you must try is NOT to have TWO emergencies. Is this clearer now?”

Stewart complained to administration about the policy, writing, “emergencies in their nature are unpredictable, unplanned and unpreventable.”

Stewart says the administration then told her the professor could set policies, and if they didn’t suit Stewart, she should drop the class. Without the school’s support,  Stewart decided to withdraw from the class, which she says cost her her scholarship.

Furthermore, Stewart was planning on graduating that semester; the complaint claims that the dropped course forced her to attend for an additional semester — without her scholarship and while caring for a new baby.

CUNY settled the complaint by agreeing to adopt a new policy to address the rights of students who are pregnant or parents, and to train faculty on the policy. CUNY also reinstated Stewart’s scholarship and reimbursed her for her expenses.

Setting Clear Course Policies

While it’s easy to criticize the professor and the school, the real issue here is that apparently neither clearly understood their legal obligation under Title IX and how it applied to course policies.

Title IX requires schools as well as individual professors to accommodate pregnant students, which means they must be flexible when enforcing any rule or policy and determine the individual student’s needs and how to help them comply with the rule or policy. Indeed, the Department of Education explains that under Title IX:

[A] teacher may not refuse to allow a student to submit work after a deadline that she missed because of absences due to pregnancy or childbirth. Additionally, if a teacher’s grading is based in part on class attendance or participation, the student should be allowed to earn the credits she missed so that she can be reinstated to the status she had before the leave.

Indeed, the NWLC claimed that the school violated Title IX in part by “maintaining a policy that allows individual professors to set rules regarding leave and make-up work, without clear guidelines regarding compliance with civil-rights laws.”

Similarly, Lara Kaufmann, senior counsel at the NWLC, told Slate: “What we notice at the post-secondary level a lot, school administrators want to give professors the discretion to set their own absence policies and make up work policies…And either those professors aren’t aware or don’t care that they have to comply with Title IX and its regulations.”

The point is not to excuse the professor’s conduct but to emphasize that she and other professors must be better informed on their legal obligations when setting or enforcing course policies.

For this reason, all schools should take steps to educate professors of their responsibilities under Title IX. The need for further training is especially pressing in light of the OCR’s recent actions, which suggest greater vigilance and enforcement going forward. Indeed, the Department of Education (ED) just released a “Dear Colleague” letter reminding schools of their obligation to accommodate pregnant and parenting students.

And it’s not just about compliance.  These policies can significantly improve student retention as well.

As Stewart herself eloquently said, accommodating pregnant students can help “thousands of students as determined as I am to set a secure path and bright future for their children and themselves, and we all deserve that chance.”

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