Hardly a week goes by without news of a new sexual harassment or sexual misconduct complaint on a college campus or somewhere in the U.S. Those of us in human resources who work with a complainant and/or a respondent regarding an incident of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are aware of the emotions, need for privacy, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of a job, career, or expulsion from a college/university. We know how high the stakes are for the victim, the accused student, their friends and families, and the institution. Rarely are these cases settled to the satisfaction of everyone involved.
When addressing and working to eliminate sexual harassment and violence, colleges and universities are required to navigate a web of intersecting state and federal laws, as well as the ongoing regulatory changes and guidance. These include Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits all forms of discrimination based on sex or gender in higher education; FERPA, which governs student privacy; the Violence Against Women Act; the Clery Act; and New York State Education Law Article 129-B, better known as the “Enough is Enough” law.
In the midst of media coverage and conversations about high-profile cases, what’s often forgotten is that the details remain mostly unknown to the public, because institutions like Rensselaer must protect the privacy of their students. In addition, the accuser and the accused have equal rights to campus resources and the law gives them both the right to be heard, to present evidence on their own behalf, and to have all the facts considered. Those rights and policies are designed to ensure that a fair and complete investigation will take place.
Each allegation of sexual harassment or misconduct is resolved on its own specific facts and circumstances. When a policy violation is found, disciplinary sanctions range from counseling, academic probation, and suspension, to expulsion. If the evidence uncovered in an investigation is not sufficient to support a policy violation, other accommodations – such as no contact orders, class changes, and residence hall moves may need to be implemented to assist and support aggrieved students. Also, 24-hour access to a licensed counselor is available and Rensselaer is proud to partner with community organizations dedicated to assisting victims of sexual violence and other crimes.
Many institutions of higher education, including Rensselaer, have dedicated staff members whose primary responsibility is to investigate and resolve these matters. These professionals make it clear to students and others who have experienced sexual harassment or misconduct that they are empowered to report an incident to the university, local law enforcement, New York State Police, or to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. These are serious responsibilities, which we do our best to fulfill while showing compassion, respect, and dignity to all parties involved.
These cases take an emotional toll on the accuser, accused, their families, and friends, as well as the reputation of the university. Adhering to policies and procedures put in place to protect students may be frustrating at times, for those going through the process and those watching from the outside. But it is critical that they are followed to protect our students’ rights. We owe them nothing less!