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Schools Responsible to Ensure No Hostile Environment on Campus When Classes Conducted Virtually Due to COVID-19

To date, the Department of Education (DOE) has not provided its own guidance specifically regarding the enforcement of Title IX at postsecondary schools during the coronavirus pandemic. However, schools have an ongoing responsibility to ensure their students are not being subjected to unlawful discrimination. 

Title IX guidance generally provides that schools must treat incidents of sexual misconduct occurring off campus in the same manner as if it happened on campus, if it’s determined that the alleged misconduct occurred within the context of the educational program and/or has an ongoing effect for [members of] the school environment.

Consider the following hypothetical: A member of the university’s women’s lacrosse team receives numerous threatening and disparaging remarks about the lacrosse players on campus from an ex-boyfriend. He repeatedly sends messages to her on Snapchat, as well as through their campus email accounts. Afraid, the lacrosse player forwards some of the email messages to her teammates, and they all become concerned by the vile comments in the messages. As a result, three of the players forward their concerns to the school because they can no longer study for their classes, and are afraid to leave their homes because they take his threats seriously. 

Although this alleged behavior did not occur on campus, the school should look into this matter ASAP. The ex-boyfriend might be in violation of the school’s sexual misconduct policy (depending on policy definitions of sexual misconduct and applicable law) with regard to stalking, harassment, and possibly even dating violence. The ex-boyfriend may be creating an environment of gender harassment for the other lacrosse players as well, while using school resources to commit some of the alleged acts. These allegations, if true, could affect each player’s educational experience. 

With Title IX, a school’s response to notice of possible sexual misconduct is extremely important. Although campuses are closed, schools can investigate the allegations with the involved parties using virtual planning, interviewing, and resolution.