Sexual Harassment on or off Campus Is a Serious Matter
Sexual harassment is a broad term that is often used to describe a wide range of behavior, much of it criminal, ranging from offensive jokes or name-calling to sexual assault, including rape. Colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and in other states have been working hard for many years to reduce or eliminate instances of sexual harassment among their students, faculty, and staff, whether it occurs on or off campus. What this means is that if you are a student attending college in Pennsylvania, you can often be charged and prosecuted by your school for harassing behavior that is not strictly illegal (as well as being charged and prosecuted in a criminal case for behavior that is).
Title IX Has Had a Strong Impact on University Policies Regarding Sexual Harassment
Federal legislation popularly known as "Title IX" has greatly influenced a number of college and university policies, well beyond the ones most of us are aware of relating to equality in scholarship and competition opportunities for male and female athletes. In the area of sexual harassment, for example, Title IX regulations require schools to implement measures and assign personnel to address sexual harassment, discrimination, and assault claims. Schools that accept federal funding – meaning almost every college and university in Pennsylvania and in the United States – are required to follow applicable Title IX requirements or risk losing that funding.
As a result of Title IX, and also because schools want to foster a campus environment that is free from discrimination that encourages learning and creativity, colleges in Pennsylvania and in other states have crafted detailed policies and procedures that are designed to make it easier for students to report sexual harassment, and for the school to take concrete action once a report has been filed. These policies will typically provide ways for students to report harassment; establish procedures for how the reports are investigated; set forth a student discipline process that is followed in cases of substantiated reports, and explain what the potential disciplinary consequences are where there is a finding against the charged student.
The Title IX Standards Are Not the Same as Criminal Law Standards
Many types of sexual harassment overlap with state laws sexual assault crimes. In Pennsylvania, this can range from misdemeanors such as indecent exposure to felonies such as sexual assault and rape. If you are a student charged with committing a sex offense on or off campus in Pennsylvania, you will first and foremost need to deal with the criminal charges against you. A conviction under many sex offense statutes in Pennsylvania can lead to a lifetime of difficulty beyond any possible prison time you may have to serve. Future job prospects will dim, and if you're required to register as a sex offender, you will be restricted in where you are allowed to live and will likely have real problems finding landlords willing to rent to you.
Your first priority, then, is resolving the criminal charges against you in as favorable a way as possible. You need the help of Joseph D. Lento, an experienced criminal attorney who has been representing clients charged with sex offenses in Pennsylvania for years. He understands the court system and what kinds of evidence can and cannot be introduced against a defendant at trial, and he will fight to make sure your rights are respected in this kind of case where many people quickly assume that being charged means you're guilty. Joseph D. Lento knows better, and having him on your side can make all the difference.
But as a student, you also face a second hurdle: your school's code of conduct. Every college and university in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country has one, and they represent a second trial of sorts that you may have to face if you've been charged with a sex offense committed against a student, faculty, or staff member. In addition, as explained below, most school sexual misconduct policies also prohibit and punish behavior that may not be treated as a crime in Pennsylvania, such as making lewd or suggestive comments in the absence of any physical contact.
This means you need an attorney who not only can help you with your criminal case (if there is one) but who is also skilled at representing students involved in school disciplinary proceedings. Joseph D. Lento has that experience and understands that being acquitted in your criminal case doesn't mean you're out of the woods when it comes to your school's disciplinary procedures. In his years of representing students involved in both criminal matters and school disciplinary hearings, Joseph D. Lento has learned how to effectively represent his student clients in both types of proceedings at the same time.
Here are some examples of school policies that define sexual harassment and explain how the schools resolve these kinds of complaints.
The University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania defines "sexual harassment" to include "any unwanted conduct that is based on an individual's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression" that "is so severe, pervasive, and/or objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to an educational or employment program or activity." Examples of this could include lewd or suggestive comments directed at students who are members of a school organization to the point where they feel unwelcome and unable to participate in the organization. Of course, Penn's sexual harassment policies go beyond the use of words against other students and include criminal sex offenses as well.
Penn's Student Disciplinary Procedures for Resolving Complaints of Sexual Misconduct, for example, states that "sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual violence, relationship violence, and stalking will not be tolerated." Complaints concerning violations of Penn's sexual misconduct policy can be filed with the school's Associate Vice-President for Equity and Title IX Officer (the "AVP"); but they may also be filed with the Philadelphia District Attorney or the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. There is no deadline for submitting sexual harassment complaints. The school's goal is to complete the process of hearing and resolving complaints in 60 days, with 30 additional days in the case of an appeal.
The Investigation of the Complaint
After receiving a complaint, the AVP will determine whether it appears to warrant further investigation and may interview the complaining party and the accused as part of making that determination. If the AVP decides the complaint should be investigated further, the AVP will issue a Statement of Charge letter, which the accused can respond to. The matter will then be investigated further by a "trained investigative officer," who will assemble a team of co-investigators from among trained members of the Penn staff or faculty, third-party consultants, or outside attorneys.
The result of this investigation will be a report that will be shared with both parties. It will include recommended next steps (which could be dismissal of the matter or discipline of the charged student). If both parties agree to the recommendations, the matter may be resolved without a hearing.
If either party disagrees, then the matter may proceed to a formal hearing stage. Hearing panels are mixed-gender and are composed of three faculty members from schools within Penn other than ones in which the students involved in the hearing are enrolled and a non-voting hearing officer.
Importantly, especially for the accused, the parties are allowed to have a lawyer during investigative interviews and when being questioned by the panel hearing the complaint. Lawyers can also question the other party and witnesses.
The hearing panel will rule on the matters presented in the Statement of Charge. To rule against the accused, two of the three voting panel members must find it more likely than not that the accused committed the acts complained of in the Statement of Charge. (This is a lower standard than the familiar "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal cases.) If the panel rules against the accused, they will also vote on an appropriate sanction to be imposed on the student. Panel decisions may be appealed but are otherwise final.
Temple has a similarly broad definition of sexual misconduct that includes a wide range of behavior, including "Hostile Environment Harassment," which is defined as "Unwelcome conduct based on sex/gender that is severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive such that it effectively denies an individual from participating in or benefitting from the university's education or employment programs and/or activities." Complaints filed against students alleging sexual misconduct are investigated by the university's Student Conduct Administrator and are resolved according to Temple's Student Conduct Code procedures. These procedures are similar to Penn's, and where a complaint is investigated and, if substantiated during that process, a sanction against a student is proposed by the Student Conduct Administrator. At Temple, as with Penn, if the student refuses the proposed sanction, a hearing takes place.
Temple's Student Conduct Code notes that "Formal rules of process, procedure, and/or technical rules of evidence, such as are applied in criminal or civil court, are not used in Student Conduct Board hearings." This is not unusual in these kinds of school disciplinary hearings and is something that an attorney who is skilled in representing students involved in disciplinary matters is well aware of. It means that evidence such as hearsay testimony or unauthenticated video or audio recordings that might not make it into a court of law may very well become part of a disciplinary hearing. Joseph Lento has been representing students involved in college disciplinary hearings at schools across Pennsylvania and all over the country. He is very aware of the many ways these proceedings differ from criminal court trials and knows how to help you introduce and challenge hearing evidence.
Drexel also has its own Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy that expands the kind of conduct prohibited by the school beyond what Title IX requires. This includes an "unwelcome sexual advance; request for sexual favors; or other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual-based nature," where the conduct is "severe or pervasive" and creates a hostile work, academic, or social environment. The Drexel policy notes that "[a] single or isolated incident may create a hostile environment if the incident is sufficiently severe."
Drexel has a number of ways to report sexual harassment, one of them anonymously, and as with many other schools, offers "amnesty" to individuals who report sexual harassment incidents that occurred while the student making the report may have been violating other aspects of the school code of conduct at the time (such as those relating to alcohol or drugs). Once reported, Drexel's policies with respect to initial investigations, informal efforts to resolve the complaint, formal investigations and hearings, and sanctions are similar to those implemented by other colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
A student who is charged with sexual harassment and is found guilty under a school disciplinary procedure typically faces a range of sanctions depending on the seriousness of the charge. These are typically left to the discretion of the school and represent one area where having a skilled attorney on your team can greatly benefit you if you've been charged with violating school policy.
Joseph D. Lento has been representing students in college and university disciplinary proceedings for years, in Pennsylvania and all over the country. This experience has given him a perspective that not many attorneys have; he has seen firsthand the many ways these kinds of situations can resolve themselves, and he is uniquely positioned to propose alternative forms of resolution that can allow his client to remain in school and complete their studies, in situations where the students might otherwise be suspended or expelled.
Joseph D. Lento Can Help
If you are a student who has been charged with a criminal sex offense or have been accused of sexual harassment on campus, you need to contact Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm as soon as possible. Joseph D. Lento understands. He has represented many clients who find themselves in your shoes, and he knows that there are at least two sides to every story. You deserve a strong, effective, and knowledgeable advocate on your team; call Joseph D. Lento today at 888.535.3686 or reach out to The Lento Law Firm online. Joseph D. Lento is here to listen and to help.