The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is investigating Cedarville University in Ohio after complaints the Christian school violated Title IX, a federal law that regulates sexual harassment policies on college campuses.
The complaint filed by a former student said Cedarville lacks a Title IX coordinator and “students were not informed that there is an established reporting policy and investigation process established for cases of rape, assault, and harassment,” according to a statement released by student newspaper, The Ventriloquist. The student said she was the victim of attempted sexual abuse.
But Cedarville officials said they followed Title IX policies, and notes the student actually spoke with the school’s Title IX coordinator, Lisa Todd, who is also the vice president of human resources. Todd began an internal investigation of the student’s case earlier this year, but the student said Todd never identified herself as the Title IX coordinator in their conversations.
School officials deny any wrongdoing and say they do not tolerate sexual harassment or misconduct at the “Christ-centered” college: “As set forth in the University’s Sexual Harassment Policy, sexual harassment violates the dignity of individuals and is prohibited by University policy and state and federal law.” Cedarville also said it had an oversight committee for Title IX compliance, as well as mandatory sexual harassment training for teachers and an anonymous reporting system to uncover unethical or unlawful behavior.
David Thomas, a Department of Education spokesman, told the Huffington Post the OCR will investigate “whether the University failed to adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee complaints alleging sex discrimination.”
Title IX regulations remain a controversial topic. The civil rights statute, signed by former President Richard Nixon in 1972, grew out of a push to give women equal access to school funding and facilities, especiallly in sports, and aimed to punish offenders in cases of sexual harassment. But as the power of Title IX regulations continues to grow, “sexual harassment” is now defined so broadly that almost every student is vulnerable to punishment.
The University of Southern California, University of North Carolina, and University of Montana all have faced Title IX investigations. At the University of Montana, the OCR told the school that in its policy, “sexual harassment should be more broadly defined as ‘any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.’” But “unwelcome” could mean anything an accuser chooses.
A university found out of compliance with the law could lose significant federal funding in the form of Pell grants and Stafford loans channeled through students. Schools are vulnerable to lawsuits from anyone federal regulators deem a victim. In an interview with the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, former Department of Education attorney Hans Bader said, “Innocent people get found guilty of harassment because the school realizes the only way it can avoid liability is to punish everybody in sight.”