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Could New Sexual Harassment Standards on Campus Affect Student Learning?

Aug 18, 2011

To further help protect college students from sexual harassment, the U.S. Department of Education has clarified the standard used to determine guilt. Some in higher education are now concerned that this could end up hurting learning environments.

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By Jessica Lyons

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Sexual Harassment on College Campuses

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities at places that receive federal funding, including institutions of higher education. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 'sexual harassment is widespread on America's campuses' with 62% of female students and 61% of male students being sexually harassed at school.

Sexual harassment can lead to several problems on college campus, such as impeding the victim's ability get an education. The Department of Education explains sexual harassment can create hostile learning environments and negatively impact a student's ability to take part in school programs and activities. It could also lead to students dropping out of classes or having a difficult time focusing on their studies.

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Clarification of Standards

In April of 2011, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights sent out a letter to help clarify procedures for handling sexual harassment, including the standard of evidence that must be used. The letter explained that using 'clear and convincing' standards where it was 'highly probably or reasonably certain' that sexual harassment took place is a higher proof standard that violates civil rights law. This also means that it would not be in compliance with Title IX requirements.

The clarification further explains that schools should be using a 'preponderance of evidence' where 'it is more likely than not' that the alleged sexual harassment happened. When allegations of sexual harassment are made, this lower standard of evidence means it could be easier to find the accused guilty.

Clarification Draws Opposition

Not everyone is in favor of this clarification. Organizations like the American Association of University Professors and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have spoken out against having a lower standard of evidence, saying that it could hurt the ability to have due process. Other concerns are that it could infringe on professors having academic freedom and that the standards do not address free speech.

Although it's important to protect students and create comfortable learning environments for them, educators must also be able to do their jobs. These standards night need more clarification to find a balance between protecting students and making sure professors can teach without fear that something they say might be misconstrued and lead to sexual harassment allegations.

One way professors find protection in certain situations is by having tenure. However, some politicians are calling for reform or even elimination of tenture.

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