Sexual Harassment on Campus: What are Students’ Rights?

Shot of a young female student sitting outside on campus feeling depressed

If you are the target of sexual harassment on campus it can feel like you are being forced to choose between your emotional and physical health and your future. But if you are attending one of the more than 7,000 colleges and universities that receive federal funding, Title IX gives you the right to be free from sexual harassment and sexual violence at school.

In this blog post, I will review claims that Michigan State University encouraged female students not to report sexual harassment and assault by student athletes. I will discuss how Title IX protects students’ rights when they face sexual harassment on campus, and what to do if the school isn’t following the rules.

Michigan State University Said to Discourage Students from Reporting Sexual Harassment on Campus

Michigan State University has come under fire in recent years because of the way it handled numerous claims of sexual assault by athletic physician Larry Nassar against athletes including gymnasts. But it turns out the allegations go beyond any one person’s misconduct. Bailey Kowalski and several others have filed an anonymous lawsuit against the university for violations of Title IX. They say that the university’s staff had discouraged them from reporting sexual harassment and assault when their abusers were student athletes.

In Kowalski’s case, she was 19 when she was invited to a party by a member of the MSU Basketball team after they competed in the 2015 Final Four playoffs. She accepted a ride, but when she arrived at the off-campus apartment, no one was there. Three players then took turns raping Kowalski, according to the lawsuit. When she reported the incident to the Michigan State University Counseling Center a week later, the counselor was initially supportive, but then changed her response once she learned that the abusers were student athletes.

The counselor insisted on having another person present and advised Kowalski not to have a physical exam or pregnancy or STD testing. She was not told of her student rights under Title IX, and was instead told that in cases with “guys with big names” the best thing to do was “just get yourself better.” As a result, Kowalski dropped out of college for a time and received counseling for PTSD. She also changed her major, abandoning a career in sports journalism.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit have not come forward, but the complaint tells their stories. One woman was raped by two football players in 2009 and was not told she had Title IX rights. Another reported rape by three basketball players in 2010, but those complaints never made it past the athletic department.

What are Students’ Rights Under Title IX?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 applies to sexual harassment on campus, including sexual violence, rape, and sexual assault. The law prohibits discrimination based on sex within educational facilities, programs, and activities that receive federal financial assistance. That includes approximately 16,500 public school districts; 7,000 colleges, universities, and postsecondary vocational schools, charter schools, for-profit universities, libraries, and museums.

When a school receives reports of sexual harassment on campus, or even when it reasonably should know that possible sex-based harassment is occuring, Title IX requires the school to immediately investigate the reports. If the investigation reveals that sex-based harassment denied or limited a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s educational programs or activities by creating a hostile educational environment, it must take prompt and effective steps to correct the problem. This can include:

  • Stopping the harassment
  • Eliminating the hostile environment
  • Preventing future abuse or violence
  • Remedying the effects of what has already happened

What to Do if Schools Discourage Title IX Reports

Ms. Kowalski and the other plaintiffs in the MSU case say that the school failed to meet those requirements under Title IX. Their complaint claims that they were not told of their rights under Title IX, and that they were discouraged from filing sexual harassment reports. Those who did file reports claim that the investigation was never referred to the Title IX office, and was instead kept within the athletic department.

When schools fall down on their obligations under Title IX to end sexual harassment on campus, students have the right to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which enforces the statute. The OCR will then investigate the complaint and attempt to resolve the problem by implementing new anti-harassment policies and procedures, as well as addressing the particular claims of sexual harassment, assault, or violence.

Students also have the right to file a Title IX lawsuit in federal court the way Ms. Kowalski did. This lawsuit can ask the court to order schools to change their policies, and award damages for the harm caused by when the school ignored its responsibilities under Title IX.

Students have the right to learn in environments free of sexual harassment, assault, and violence. When schools discourage students from reporting Title IX violations, they need experienced discrimination attorneys to step in and help them navigate the process of filing complaints with the OCR and in federal court. Especially in cases with “guys with big names”, students need to know that their attorneys are going to work as hard as the universities to keep them from covering up the bad behavior of their student athletes.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our sexual harassment attorneys help students facing sexual harassment on campus. If you are facing a hostile educational environment, we can help you make sure your complaints are heard. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to a sexual harassment attorney.

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