UM to comply with controversial changes to federal Title IX rules on sexual harassment

The University of Montana has adopted and will follow new Title IX policies implemented by the U.S. Department of Education this month, even as 18 other states challenge the new rules over language relating to sexual harassment.

The rules, issued by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in May, took effect on Saturday, detailing how schools and universities must respond to reports of sexual harassment and assault under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex.

“They’re law right now and we’re following them,” said UM legal counsel Lucy France. “The result is, we’ll treat allegations of discrimination, including sexual assault, seriously. People will be held accountable.”

A number of states sought an injunction to prevent the new Title IX rules from taking effect. Among their concerns, they claim the new rules are flawed because their definition of sexual harassment varies from that used in other federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex.

The new rule defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity.”

The states’ injunction said that was a much stricter definition than what is currently used in employment law. A Trump appointed federal judge refused the stop the new rules from taking effect.

“There’s both regulatory law, statutory law, state law and case law, and we’re in compliance with everything,” said France. “There’s components of them we’ve always done. We’re not walking back any of the progress we’ve made to provide a supportive educational environment for all students.”

Some groups, including the Democratic Women’s Caucus, also opposed the rule changes, saying they demand “more severe acts of violence” than what once would have prompted an investigation. One controversial component of the new rules requires both accusers and the accused to undergo live cross examinations.

France said the university will follow both state and federal law on the matter.

“There’s some differences in how certain types of conduct are adjudicated, but we’re following the law and holding people accountable,” said France. “I think we’ve threaded the needle pretty well, and we’re going to follow both state and federal law.”

Critics of the changes said the older requirements under Title IX had a lower standard to trigger investigations into claims of misconduct, with the bar set at “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”

The new rule states that a complaint must involve unwelcome conduct that is “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it denies a person access to educational opportunities.

France said the university takes all complaints seriously, regardless of the rule changes.

“To the extent that we take very seriously any type of sexual misconduct and we have policies and procedures to address it in a fair and impartial manner, I think we did that before and we’re continuing to do that,” she said. “The takeaway is that we’ll keep being vigilant to provide a supportive learning environment for our students and working environment for our employees.”