October 22, 2019

Professor says Goodwin College fired her for refusing to reveal the identity of a student who confided that another professor wanted sex in exchange for better grades. What kind of confidentiality does Title IX allow for?

A former professor of mathematics at Goodwin College in Connecticut says she was fired for refusing to reveal the identity of a student who disclosed that she’d been sexually harassed.

The professor, Laura Jean Champagne, filed a lawsuit against the college this month in a federal court, alleging wrongful termination and retaliation. The college says the complaint is misleading and that Goodwin works every day to ensure the safety of everyone on campus. Champagne’s claims nevertheless highlight how Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 defends students against harassment -- but doesn't necessarily protect their identities, or those people on campus who seek to protect them.

Title IX: Law and Spirit

Michael Dolce, an attorney with Cohen Milstein and chair of its sexual abuse practice group, said that Champagne at least appears to stand a good chance of winning her case. But that doesn’t mean that professors are supposed to protect the identity of student accusers, he said. That’s because professors are "responsible employees" under Title IX, meaning they do in fact have to disclose what they know about reports of sexual harassment on their campuses.

Yet that’s assuming that all professors and other responsible employees are properly trained in how to handle misconduct reports. With that proper training, he said, professors would know that when a student starts to disclose abuse, they are supposed to stop the student and gently explain their obligation as responsible employees to share all they know about Title IX violations with the relevant office.

It’s unclear from the complaint itself if Champagne did have that training. But details about it suggest that perhaps she didn’t, Dolce said, such as the fact that Champagne needed to email someone to find out who the Title IX coordinator was.

What if a student blurts out a disclosure before even a trained professor can explain what it means to be a responsible employee? Dolce explained that that’s something of a gray area. But, in general, he said federal guidance regarding Title IX suggests that student confidentiality must be breached in cases of sexual violence, such as an assault or attempted assault. That’s because the alleged offender presents an immediate safety threat to the greater campus community.

Yet in cases like Champagne’s, Dolce said, where the harassment was nonviolent, quid pro quo -- however abhorrent -- colleges may take a bit more time to address the problem in ways that don’t breach student confidentiality. Goodwin was right to tell Champagne to circle back to the student and ask again if she’d be willing to name the professor. But it could have done more.

Given that several students were allegedly verbally offered grades in exchange for sexual favors at Goodwin, for example, Dolce said that the college could have sent out innocuous-sounding mass email reminding students that harassment, including quid pro quo harassment, is illegal and should be reported. Such an email, of course, must include information on where and how to make reports, including anonymous ones.

Where confidentiality may be preserved, it should be, as “you don’t want to discourage future reporting by saying, ‘We’re not going to honor your confidentiality,’" Dolce said. "It’s critical in dealing with survivors of sexual harassment or sexual violence that we minimize violations of privacy.”

Dolce said he didn’t fault the provost for initially asking Champagne what the Title IX case was about and generally becoming involved. The “universe” of actors in a sexual harassment case extends beyond just the Title IX office, he said. But one of the most “disturbing” allegations in Champagne’s complaint was the “wedge” some administrators appeared to be willing to put between the student and a trusted professor. Dolce cited the suggestion that Champagne imagine how the student would feel if she knew Champagne’s job was on the line -- which apparently it was.

“That is really putting the student in a difficult situation,” Dolce said, especially “within the context of a Title IX case.”

Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University and an expert on Title IX, said via email that there may indeed be some gray area between sexual harassment and violence in terms of the need to breach student confidentiality. But reading the case somewhat differently from Dolce, she said that that's only if college policy defines reportable sexual misconduct in a way that excludes quid pro quo. Otherwise, Buzuvis said, everything -- including names -- needs to be reported by responsible employees.

The complete article can be accessed here.