August 20, 2020
The following communication was sent to the campus community on 8/17/20 by Gretchen Groggel Ralston, Associate General Counsel, Associate Vice President, & Title IX Coordinator.
Dear Simmons Community,
I hope this message finds you and your families well. I write to provide an update on new Title IX regulations released by the Department of Education (DOE) in May, dictating how schools must address allegations of sexual harassment. As a reminder, Title IX is a federal civil rights law protecting individuals from discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities receiving federal funding.
The new regulations, which went into effect last Friday, represent a departure from earlier Title IX compliance obligations. These changes evolved from the DOE’s perception that universities were not providing an adequate enough process when handling matters arising under Title IX. Simmons, along with 54 other institutions, endorsed a set of comprehensive comments on the proposed regulations that were submitted to the federal government by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.
In response to the new regulations, Simmons made significant updates to its Title IX policy, which can be found here. The following is a summary of some of the key changes that are legally required under the new Title IX regulations and are incorporated in our updated policy:
There are also several ways in which the new regulations allow Simmons to exercise its discretion. Below is how we have handled those issues:
Standard of Evidence
For complaints of Sexual Harassment, Simmons will continue to use what is termed “a preponderance of the evidence standard.” This burden of proof is met when the fact finder determines that it is more likely than not that a claim is true.
Simmons will continue designating all Simmons employees, except for a few select confidential resources, as Responsible Employees under our Title IX policy. This means that all employees who become aware of an incident of Sexual Harassment are required to report it to the Title IX Coordinator. We believe structuring the policy in this way will most effectively lead to the reporting of Sexual Harassment at the University, thus providing the best protection for our students and other community members.
Employees at Simmons who are considered confidential resources and are not required to report incidents of Sexual Harassment to the Title IX Coordinator include the Counseling Center staff, Health Center staff, and pastoral staff.
Informal Resolution Processes
Simmons can offer some flexibility for those involved in a Title IX matter by having at least two additional avenues for addressing complaints outside the standard grievance process. These alternatives can be used in matters that qualify, and provide the option of a shorter and potentially simpler process without a live hearing requirement. Both parties must opt in to use an informal resolution process.
Despite the changing Title IX landscape, we remain committed to providing a community in which every member has the right to live, learn and work in an environment free from sexual harassment.
Along with students, we will help faculty and staff become familiar with the new regulations and updates to our Title IX policy. In the coming weeks, the Simmons Title IX team will offer webinars and other ways to help members of the University community become trained and knowledgeable in these important matters. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly at gretchen.groggel[email protected].
Q: Why is Simmons making changes to its Title IX Policy?
As a recipient of federal funds, Simmons University is required by the Department of Education to have a Title IX policy that meets the requirements of the recently released Title IX regulations. When the new Title IX regulations were released in May, schools were given until August 14 to update their policies. All the changes we are making to our policy are in response to the requirements of the updated regulations.
Q: What behavior falls under our Title IX Policy?
Our Title IX Sexual Harassment Policy (“Policy”) covers a range of behaviors that fall under the umbrella term of Sexual Harassment. Under our Policy, Sexual Harassment includes: (a) quid pro quo harassment of an individual by an employee; (b) unwelcome conduct determined “by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as to deny a person equal access to Simmons’ education programs and/or activities (including employment); and (c) sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking, as defined by the regulations.
In order for behavior to fall under Title IX, it also must occur within our “program or activity” and against a person who is located in the United States. All of this is explained at greater length in the Policy.
Please note that we still have procedures for addressing matters that previously would have fallen under our Title IX policy, but no longer are within the scope of Title IX.
Q: How can I file a report of Sexual Harassment?
Q. Does a person have to file a formal complaint of Sexual Harassment with the Title IX Office to receive supportive measures?
No. We respect a student’s autonomy regarding whether they wish to pursue a claim of Sexual Harassment through the Title IX grievance process. In situations where a student reports allegations of Sexual Harassment but does not want to file a formal complaint, we will respect those wishes to the greatest extent possible, and will work with the student to provide them the support they need. Even if alleged misconduct is not within the scope of Title IX, we can and will provide a student with support. That is, it does not matter where a student experiences sexual harassment or who harassed the student. If the student experienced harassment and needs assistance to continue participating in their Simmons courses and activities, the student is encouraged to reach out to the Title IX Coordinator.
Q. What kind of support measures are available?
There are many different methods and types of support that Simmons can provide. For instance, we may be able to assist a student in changing their on-campus housing, make changes to their schedule, or help a student access additional academic supports, if needed. We can also connect students with the counseling center as well as other community resources.
Q. If a student submits a formal complaint requesting that Simmons address their allegations of Sexual Harassment, will there be an investigation?
Maybe, but maybe not. If a student submits a formal complaint requesting that Simmons review their allegations of sexual harassment, prior to Simmons starting any investigation, we will offer the Complainant (the person who allegedly experienced the Sexual Harassment) and the Respondent (the person the Complainant is alleging sexually harassed them) an opportunity to participate in an informal resolution process. There are at least two different processes available, so long as both parties agree to participate. And both processes provide the parties an opportunity to bring the matter to a resolution without engaging in the full grievance process. The key driver of the informal resolution options is that both the Complainant and the Respondent are willing participants and have consented to such.
Please note, however, that due to the Title IX regulations there are some forms of sexual harassment for which we are prohibited from offering informal resolutions. In particular, those matters where an employee is alleged to have sexually harassed a student.
Q. What if the informal resolution process is not available or not successful?
If the parties do not resolve the formal complaint through one of the informal resolution processes, and the Complainant still wants to move forward with their Formal Complaint, then there will be an investigation and, ultimately, a hearing. It is important to note that Simmons cannot and would not force anyone to participate in the grievance process. The Complainant, Respondent, and witnesses are all free to not participate in the grievance process. However, the law requires that if a party or witness chooses not to submit to questioning at the live hearing, the statements they have made relating to the allegations of Sexual Harassment cannot be considerd in determing the outcome of the matter.
Q. What does it mean when you say there will be a live hearing as part of the Title IX grievance process?
The Title IX regulations require that the parties to a matter have an opportunity to ask questions of both the opposing party and any witnesses. This does not happen directly, but through advisors, and will be done via a web-based platform. All testimony will be reviewed by an impartial Hearing Officer who will ultimately make a finding on whether the University policy has been violated. While no one will ever be forced to participate in the process , as noted above, lack of participation can impact what evidence can be considered.
Q: What if I have a complaint of Sexual Harassment against a student at another school?
Regardless of who was involved in the offending behavior, we welcome Simmons students to seek assistance through Simmons’ Title IX office if they have experienced Sexual Harassment. Simmons can assist students in assessing their options, connect them with resources, and provide support.
Q: Do I have to hire an attorney if I file a report or formal complaint of Sexual Harassment with Simmons’ Title IX Coordinator?
No, you are permitted to engage the services of an attorney to serve as an advisor through the grievance process, but you are not required to do so. The advisor you select need not be an attorney. In addition, if you do not have an advisor at the live hearing, Simmons will provide you with an advisor.
Q: If I’m not sure about filing a complaint and want to speak with someone, can you direct me to that office or individual?
We welcome you to contact Simmons’ Title IX Coordinator, Gretchen Groggel Ralston, at 617-521-2768 or [email protected].