Recent changes to the Department of Education’s Title IX guidance have brought significant attention to the way colleges and universities handle sexual assault allegations. The Trump administration implemented the changes largely in response to Obama-era guidance that reinterpreted Title IX to allow the federal government to implement standards and procedures that schools that receive federal funding must use when investigating claims of student-on-student sexual misconduct.
Schools that failed to comply with the new interpretation of Title IX risk losing federal funding. As a result, schools implemented expansive definitions of sexual misconduct that allow them to investigate incidents that some observers would consider minor incidents. While well-intentioned, these broad definitions have the potential to catch innocent people up in investigations that can disrupt not only their academic pursuits but their lives.
For example, consider the University of Iowa’s definition of sexual misconduct:
Sexual misconduct is a broad term encompassing any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that is committed without consent or by force, intimidation, coercion, or manipulation. Sexual misconduct can be committed by a person of any gender, and it can occur between people of the same or different gender.
Under this definition, sending a text with a simple social invitation, an unwelcome physical advance based on a misinterpreted comment or signal, or misinterpreted physical contact could result in a full-blown sexual misconduct investigation. What’s more, once someone makes allegations of sexual misconduct, schools may implement interim measures during the investigation—or even before commencing an investigation. These interim measures intend to stop any ongoing misconduct, stabilize the situation, and protect the integrity of any investigations. They may include: