Department of Education issues guidance on Title IX and sexual assault

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights sent all schools receiving federal funds guidance Monday on how to better understand their obligations under the Title IX civil rights law in regard to sexual assault.

Vice President Joe Biden and Sec. of Education Arne Duncan introduced the guidelines, intended to help schools “respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence,” according to a news release.

“Our primary goal is prevention through education. Information is always the best tool to combat sexual violence,” Duncan told reporters in a conference call after the announcement.

An estimated 1 in 5 women will be a victim of sexual assault in college, and about 6 percent of male college students also report being sexually assaulted, Duncan said.

The “Dear Colleague” guidance letter to educators comes at a time when two well-known universities — Yale University and Notre Dame — are facing investigations by the Department of Education for allegedly violating Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities.

Duncan clarified that the guidance released wasn’t in response to recent investigations.

“We just want to help, help everybody do the right thing. So it’s not by any means a warning [to other schools]. We think the overall majority of colleges and universities, K to 12 schools, want to do the right thing and may not quite know how,” he said.

The 19-page letter describes a school’s responsibilities in response to sexual assaults and ways to prevent sexual violence.

After an incident occurs, schools are expected to “take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects, whether or not the sexual violence is the subject of a criminal investigation,” according to a fact sheet from the Department of Education.

Duncan said the letter provides examples of how schools can meet the obligations outlined.

“For example, many schools don’t realize that they don’t have to wait for the conclusion of criminal proceedings to begin their own Title IX investigation. They can and they should start right away,” he said.

Assistant Sec. for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali explained that there is a criminal side of an incident under law enforcement and then the civil rights and regulatory responsibilities under Title IX handled by the school.

“These are in fact not necessarily the same investigations; they are processes that happen though in parallel. And civil rights responsibilities should not wait for the criminal investigation to be over,” she said.

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