Putting Policy Into Practice Series: Blog Post 1

Report of Sexual Harassment vs. Formal Complaint – Clarity and Transparency Matter

As Institutions and School Districts settle into life under the New 2020 Title IX Regulations with fresh policies and procedures, the work is just beginning. It is time to put those policies into practice.

While administrators work to get their teams trained, campuses and districts notified of the changes, websites updated, and forms created, one can only wonder what it will look and feel like when that first report of Title IX Sexual Harassment occurring August 14, 2020 or later is made.

Now, more than ever, clarity and transparency matter. The initial meeting by a Title IX Coordinator with a Complainant (and parent or guardian in the K-12 setting) is critically important.

Explaining the difference between a report of Sexual Harassment and the signing of a Formal Complaint is essential to allowing a Complainant to make informed decisions. The Complainant must fully understand the required response by an Institution or School District when a Formal Complaint is filed.

When a report of Sexual Harassment is made to an Official with Authority in the higher education setting, or any employee in a K-12 school district, response is required. Supportive measures and resources are imperative. However, once a Formal Complaint is filed, the Institution or School District MUST provide a Notice of Allegations to the Respondent. Such notice includes the name of the Complainant and details about the allegations, among other things. Thus, it is crucial that Title IX Coordinators are clear about this requirement on the front end.

This transparency can occur in multiple ways. First and foremost, a conversation. When initially meeting with a Complainant, a Title IX Coordinator should inform them of their responsibilities and the Complainant’s options, including the option to tell the Title IX Coordinator nothing except that they have experienced Sexual Harassment and need resources or support, which the Title IX Coordinator will promptly provide. It is also important for the Title IX Coordinator to explain that under certain (and hopefully limited) circumstances the Title IX Coordinator will sign a Formal Complaint. Those circumstances should be clear to a Complainant so that they may decide how their situation will be evaluated if the Complainant chooses to disclose their experience.

When explaining the option for a Formal Complaint, a Title IX Coordinator should clearly articulate that the first step in the process of a Formal Complaint will include notification to the Respondent of the Complainant’s identity and their allegations constituting Sexual Harassment. Then, the Complainant should be provided time to process this requirement and make an informed decision. A Formal Complaint document should not be pushed in front of them with a request for an immediate signature.  It is a big decision and starts a process that is difficult, if not impossible to walk back.

The second way to provide this transparency is through a webpage and proactive communication. Even before a Complainant enters a Title IX Office, they should know where to find their options and have the opportunity to review them.  Providing the ability to review a clearly articulated explanation of the entire process, but most importantly, the chain of events that must occur after a Formal Complaint, is key.

Institutions and School Districts should think hard before providing a link to submit a Formal Complaint before having the opportunity to fully explain the required steps that follow.

Bottom Line: There is a difference between a report and a Formal Complaint. The way such a distinction is articulated is important. Clarity and transparency matter.