Acting Secretary of Education John King, who could be confirmed to the post Wednesday, won’t be able to pacify Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., with tautologies.
In a letter Friday, the chairman of the Senate Regulatory Affairs Subcommittee dispensed with every argument by King’s underling at the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Catherine Lhamon, that Title IX gives the department the power to unilaterally issue broad new regulations related to harassment, bullying and sexual misconduct with no public rulemaking. (Read the footnotes in particular.)
Lankford minced no words with King:
I again call on you personally to clarify that these policies are not required by Title IX, but reflect only one of various ways schools may choose to develop and implement policies for the prevention and remedy of sexual harassment and sexual violence that best meet the needs of their students and are compliant with federal law. I further ask that you immediately rein in the regulatory abuses within the Department of Education and take measures to ensure that all existing and future guidance documents issued by your agency are clearly and firmly rooted in statutory authority.
The senator is greatly annoyed that the department keeps citing its own earlier guidance as justifying its later guidance.
Regarding OCR’s 2010 Dear Colleague letter on sexual harassment and bullying, Lankford wrote King that the office improperly included examples of conduct that “can” violate Title IX – many of which are protected by the First Amendment – in and of themselves, not as one element of a “three-part test” as it has previously laid out:
But more importantly, regardless of however well-developed these citations to previous guidance documents are, they … do not have the force and effect of law, and therefore [cannot answer Lankford’s primary question] … What statutory or regulatory authority do you construe to arrive at the conclusion that Title IX requires that this proscribed conduct “can” be prohibited?
Lankford is also flabbergasted that OCR chief Lhamon thinks that “letters of findings” – her office’s settlements with colleges – justify its 2011 Dear Colleague letter that told colleges they must use the preponderance-of-evidence standard in sexual-misconduct proceedings in order to provide an “equitable resolution,” as required by Title IX:
[L]etters of findings carry no precedential value themselves and are a poor vehicle to alert regulated entities of new requirements … [These particular letters also] demonstrate that you have penalized those you regulate by enforcing standards never articulated by the Department and for which I question your authority.
In order for preponderance to be the only appropriate standard under Title IX, the statute would have to impose “strict liability” on colleges regardless of their response to sexual harassment or violence by students, which it doesn’t, Lankford said.
He noted that OCR “strongly discourages” schools from letting parties cross-examine each other, prohibits schools from letting accused students appeal unless their accusers get the same right, and even allows schools to make the same person the “fact-finder” and the “decision-maker” – all of which contradict “essential protections [that] defendants in a court of law enjoy”:
OCR’s silence on important due process considerations, coupled with the requirement of a lower standard of proof, indisputably tips the playing field against the accused, making the disciplinary process anything but “equitable.”
If OCR is really only telling colleges “its construction of the statutes and regulations” it enforces, it needs to cite actual statutes and regulations – not its own guidance and letters of findings, Lankford wrote.
h/t Stop Abusive and Violent Environments
IMAGE: James Lankford/Flickr