Survivors of sexual assault who filed federal complaints against Columbia for allegedly failing to provide Title IX-guaranteed accommodations will now see the future of their grievances decided by appointees of President Donald Trump, casting a new layer of doubt over an already-uncertain issue.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights currently has four open investigations into Columbia’s handling of sexual assault cases, all on grounds that the University allegedly violated Title IX. And earlier this month, one of the investigation’s complainants, Amelia Roskin-Frazee, CC ’19, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Columbia mishandled her reports of rape.
The complaints against Columbia that led to some of the investigations—as well as the lawsuit—claim that the University failed to provide adequate accommodations to survivors of sexual assault and shed light on the University’s complex system of providing accommodations, in which no one office is solely accountable for approving and overseeing accommodation requests.
Requested accommodations can include switching classes, moving to a different residence hall to avoid contact with the alleged assaulter, or receiving medical support like counseling or resources for post-traumatic stress from the Office of Disability Services.
The future of the complaints and the lawsuit, however, is difficult to predict. According to legal experts, there is little court precedent dictating the bounds of Title IX violations in the context of sexual assault cases, meaning the outcome of Roskin-Frazee’s suit is likely to set a new national precedent.
According to law professor and Title IX expert Peter Lake, there is little existing legal precedent that defines any of these allegations as clear violations of Title IX. And while OCR has released guidance on how universities should best comply with Title IX—which is heavily cited in Roskin-Frazee’s complaint—Lake noted that there is no guarantee courts will agree with OCR’s interpretation of Title IX law.
“I think some of the litigation is actually testing how much of this did OCR get right and how much did it get wrong,” Lake said. “There's a lot of gray space here, legally, to resolve.”
Meanwhile, when it comes to the findings of OCR investigations, newly appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has signaled that she will shift away from the aggressive enforcement of Title IX on college campuses spearheaded by the Obama administration beginning in 2011.
A decentralized system of accommodations
The details of Roskin-Frazee’s suit are further complicated by Columbia’s complex system for granting accommodations to survivors of sexual assault. According to Associate Vice President for Student Conduct and Community Standards Jeri Henry, students can request accommodations through SCCS, which in turn connects them to the office responsible for fulfilling the request. Students can also directly ask specific University offices, such as Housing, for accommodations.
Despite the outstanding complaints and lawsuit against Columbia, Henry said that she believes connecting survivors to accommodations is rarely, if ever, an issue.
“This is not a thing. This is not really an issue as you present it,” Henry said in an interview with Spectator. “Those requests [for accommodations] are done, are handled.”
Henry also said that her office, SCCS, was not responsible for approving accommodation requests or evaluating whether or not they are reasonable.
“It’s not about the decision of my office to grant or deny accommodations,” Henry said. “What we’re doing is we’re plugging the student into the right entity to go through the appropriate channel, and to do it expeditiously.”
With offices across the University bearing different responsibilities to fulfill requests, it is unclear which specific offices are responsible for determining whether a request for accommodations is reasonable. When asked how students could appeal a denied request, Henry said it would depend on the request.
In some cases, offices responsible for accommodations decide individually whether to approve a request. A Campus Services spokesperson said that ODS and Counseling and Psychological Services both evaluate requests for accommodations from a medical perspective, and Dean of Advising Andrew Plaa said that academic accommodations are either granted by the Berick Center for Student Advising or arranged by faculty.
But other offices do not make this determination. According to the Campus Services spokesperson, Housing does not approve or deny requests. Roskin-Frazee’s complaint alleges that her request to move to a new residence hall was not offered free of charge, but rather at a cost of hundreds of dollars.
“SCCS has been completely unhelpful,” Roskin-Frazee said. “As a survivor you really don't know where to go. And then when you go to the places where you think you're supposed to go, then maybe they tell you things that aren't even true.”
Columbia is currently tied second in the nation for the university with the greatest number of active Title IX federal complaints, with four open OCR investigations.
These investigations, one of which was filed by a collective 23 students and alumni, all stem from allegations that the University “failed to respond promptly and equitably to a complaint[s] of sexual assault.”
The four cases allege that the University furthermore failed to provide accommodations for survivors, with one case stating that Columbia discriminated on the basis of disability in failing to provide academic assistance.
One OCR complaint, filed in July 2015, claims that the University discouraged the survivor from reporting and in retaliation ignored the student’s requests for academic assistance.
Roskin-Frazee is the most recent Title IX complainant.
“My complaint was about two specific types of Title IX violations. It was Columbia failed to properly respond to a complaint of sexual assault in October, and ultimately later Columbia failed to provide prompt, equitable accommodations which includes, academic, housing, and other Title IX related accommodations that they're supposed to provide,” Roskin-Frazee said.
Students have also expressed concern regarding the Trump administration and its future potential impact on the enforcement of Title IX.
"Generally, the thought nationally has been that filing complaints to the Office of Civil Rights may not be as effective during the Trump administration. Not to say that it was too perfect before,” Roskin-Frazee said.
There is also concern regarding the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions putting out new guidance for the Department of Education regarding the handling of Title IX cases.
“It’s a moving target because the Justice Department and the Department of Education can revise guidance, and at any time the Supreme Court can pick a case off the docket and tell us something we haven’t heard before,” Lake said.