OCR Investigations of Educational Institutions Find Violations of Title IX, Section 504, ADA

by Ballard Spahr LLP

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently announced that its compliance reviews of two educational institutions found one institution did not comply with Title IX in responding to incidents of sexual assault and harassment, and a second institution did not meet its obligation under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make its website and online learning environment accessible to individuals with disabilities.

While the decisions and corresponding resolution agreements involve a school district and an Internet-based state charter school, both contain important guidance for colleges and universities and signal clearly that OCR will continue to focus on investigating and finding violations in sexual violence cases in particular.

Title IX Decision

OCR found that the West Contra Costa Unified School District in California violated Title IX when it did not respond promptly and effectively to sexual assaults and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature that “permeated” its schools and created a sexually hostile environment. In making its findings, OCR reinforced its position that in sexual violence cases involving law enforcement, educational institutions have an independent obligation under Title IX to investigate the conduct at issue.

OCR also touched upon consent and confidentiality issues, which have continued to surface in the wake of its 2011 Dear Colleague Letter. Additionally, the West Contra Costa letter identified procedural issues with the failure to designate a Title IX coordinator and adopt and publish grievance procedures that provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of sex discrimination complaints.

This decision is OCR’s second announcement in the last week that it has identified compliance concerns under Title IX in the responses of educational institutions to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. As OCR continues to require educational institutions to have in place a system for responding promptly to sexual harassment in schools so that recurrences are prevented, colleges and universities are advised to audit their Title IX policies, procedures, and training programs to ensure that they have in place a coordinated system that:

  • Addresses and tracks incidents of sexual harassment and violence in an integrated manner
  • Protects complainants and others from further harassment
  • Provides due process to alleged perpetrators
  • Creates a positive campus climate

Section 504/ADA Decision

OCR also announced that it entered into a “first-of-its-kind” resolution agreement with the Virtual Community School of Ohio, an online charter school that serves approximately 1,200 students. OCR’s investigation found violations of Section 504 and the ADA, including ones concerning the accessibility of the school’s website. OCR found that the school’s online program was inaccessible to students, parents, and prospective applicants with vision-related and other disabilities. OCR’s resolution agreement with the school requires it to develop an “electronic and information technologies accessibility policy,” designate an individual to coordinate and implement the policy, conduct regular accessibility audits, and train relevant staff.

In light of recent activity by OCR and the U.S. Department of Justice in the area of web accessibility, colleges and universities are advised to:

  • Immediately conduct audits of the accessibility of their websites and online environments
  • Put in place website and technology policies
  • Train faculty, students, and staff on the obligation to provide accessible websites under Section 504 and the ADA

To learn more about website accessibility and compliance in this area, view our recent webinar on the subject.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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