Title IX officer discusses changes to sexual assault investigation policies and procedures

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New University of California policies prohibiting sexual violence and sexual harassment and governing the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations against students went into effect on Jan. 1. Kathleen Salvaty, UCLA’s Title IX coordinator, has been working with units across campus to implement the new policies, which require that investigations of sexual violence complaints against students be conducted by investigators in her office rather than by the dean of students. Title IX of the U.S. education code prohibits gender discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual violence, at educational institutions receiving federal funding. 

Salvaty joined UCLA last spring. She has extensive experience litigating a variety of civil rights cases, including matters concerning police reform, public school funding and early childhood education. She received her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School. Salvaty recently discussed the procedural changes with UCLA Newsroom. Responses have been edited for length and style.

How did the new policy for investigating sexual harassment and assault come about?
In 2014, UC President Janet Napolitano spearheaded a task force on preventing and responding to student sexual violence, and that task force has been working diligently for almost two years. The culmination of their work is a new UC-wide policy on sexual violence and sexual harassment that applies to all community members and, in tandem with that, a new framework for adjudicating and resolving complaints against students for sexual violence and sexual harassment.

What are the main differences between how we used to investigate and resolve these cases  and how we’ll do it going forward?
Historically at UCLA, when a student brought a claim of sexual violence against another student, it was handled primarily by the dean of students, whose office would collect the information, interview parties and then send it to a student conduct committee. That student conduct committee would make a finding as to whether or not a violation of the student conduct code occurred. In that respect, it was handled similarly to the way in which the dean of students would handle other discipline or student code of conduct violations, such as plagiarism or alcohol violations.

Under the new framework which took effect this month, a Title IX investigator will conduct a thorough investigation and make a finding as to what conduct occurred, and then make a recommendation as to whether that conduct constitutes a violation of the UC policy and our conduct code. The investigator will send that recommendation to the dean of students, who will make the finding as to whether a violation of the student conduct code occurred. If the dean of students concludes that a violation occurred, he or she would assess the sanction against the student found responsible. The student still has a right to an in-person hearing, but now, that’s in the form of an appeal hearing. So the student can appeal the findings made by the Title IX investigator and the dean of students to an appeal body.

What are some of the benefits of the new procedures?
The whole model is designed to make the process less burdensome for our students. It’s the university’s obligation to conduct fair, thorough and prompt investigations of claims of sexual violence. We believe this new framework will help us meet that obligation.  Now, a trained investigator will be responsible for collecting all information, and we remove some of the burden from our students to gather and present information themselves. Another obvious benefit is consistency across UC campuses.

I would encourage any student to report directly to the Title IX Office. We also have a deputy Title IX coordinator in the Dean of Students Office, and a student could still report to the dean of students if they choose.

Will the new policy require UCLA or your office to hire new staff?
Yes. We are in the process of hiring two investigators. We are also in the process of designating appeal body members, who will be specifically designated and trained to serve on the appeal bodies. And we will hire an appeal body chair who will oversee that appeal body.

So they’re well-trained in this area?
The appeal body members will be well-trained.  In the past, much like the dean of students, a member of a student conduct committee could be hearing a plagiarism case one week, and having to hear a very complex sexual violence case the next week. Now, it’s a smaller group of appeal body members, and they will be thoroughly trained on the issues they’ll be facing.

The new policy applies to all campuses. How much flexibility does UCLA have in terms of implementing the new policy?
The general framework for handling student cases was developed by the president’s task force and the UC Office of the President. That said, they requested that each campus come up with its own local implementing procedures, and we’ve done that. So we have had some flexibility, but the goal is for all the UC campuses to have the same core elements in terms of how a student reports instances of sexual violence against another student, and how those reports are handled.

Under the new policy, are there minimum sanctions for students who violate the conduct code?
The new framework contemplates minimum sanctions for students. I think for purposes of putting our community on notice, it’s accurate to say that, absent exceptional circumstances, most violations would result in a minimum two-year suspension with a maximum sanction of dismissal.

Does the policy apply only to students or to staff and faculty as well?
There are two major developments that have occurred this January. One involves the procedures for investigating and adjudicating student complaints, which we’ve just discussed. The other is a new UC-wide policy on sexual violence and sexual harassment, and that applies to all of our community members, including faculty and staff. The UC Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment prohibits sexual harassment and violence, and lays out general procedures for how we respond to reports of sexual violence and sexual harassment.

One part of the new policy that’s important to highlight is that it now expressly defines who  ‘responsible employees’ are. If you are identified as a responsible employee, you are obligated to report to the Title IX Office any instance of sexual harassment or sexual violence that you become aware of in the course of your employment. The policy now clearly defines faculty members, managers, supervisors and others as responsible employees with that reporting obligation. So if a student, for example, comes to faculty member and discloses that he or she may have experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence, the faculty member is obligated to report it to my office.

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