An In-Depth Look: Title IX and the Code of Conduct at Connecticut College

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Connecticut College has a unique Honor Code in which a select group of students disciplines their peers. However, a self-standing quasi-judiciary handles Title IX sexual misconduct violations under a separate system.

College enrollment is just over 1,800 students. Despite this small student body, Conn College received 12 reports of rape, five of dating violence, and two of stalking in the “reasonably contiguous area” of campus. The school also disciplined 186 alcohol policy violations and 49 drug violations.

Title IX

There are four Title IX Coordinators at Conn College. Each focuses on compliance for a different group: athletics, faculty, staff, and students. All faculty and supervisory staff are required to report potential Title IX violations to a coordinator. The school’s Title IX policy employs a modified form of the “single investigator model” that the Office for Civil Rights seeks to ban in regulations proposed in 2018. 

Conn College’s Title IX policy may therefore be headed for some reorganization.  But other schools that have recently adapted to these changes have usually introduced only slight adjustments

Conn College’s policy focuses on a customary set of sexual misconduct violations: sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, and retaliation. But it is unusual in prohibiting sexual “exploitation.”

Sexual harassment is given a definition that is consistent with that used in federal courts, and the college attempts to establish a gradient from mild to severe infractions. While a single incident may be serious enough to constitute a violation, Conn College makes clear that the “mere utterance” of an epithet normally does not merit discipline. To be objectionable, the behavior must rise to the level where a “reasonable person” would consider it to interfere with the school’s educational environment.

However, the definition of “exploitation” is disturbingly vague.

Some “exploitation” violations are easily recognized as wrong and illegal in almost all contexts: voyeurism, illicitly recording sex acts, prostitution, or drugging someone without their knowledge or consent. Engaging in sex without disclosing a sexually transmitted disease is also a violation; and while this is not illegal in Connecticut with the exception of HIV, it is illegal in many other states.

It is concerning, however, that Conn College defines “exploitation” to include anything construed as taking “sexual advantage of another for [one’s] own advantage.” This creates room for the prosecution of almost any behavior, so long as one party complains of being “taken advantage of” for whatever reason. No one can plausibly argue in their defense that they sought no advantage in sex. However consensual, sex is not commonly understood as an act of self-abnegation.

The Title IX policy also has no mechanism for dismissing frivolous complaints. It asserts the right to do so in its formal annual report on campus safety as required under the Clery Act and Connecticut Law.  It does not in its formal statement of policy provided to students and the public on its website.  Any formal complaint must be referred to investigation, which Conn College organizes by pairing an outside investigator with an internal Conn College Student Life staff member. Contradictory policy statements are a potential source of confusion and irregular enforcement.

The school does not provide for a hearing or independent decision maker during the complaint resolution process.

Any option for an informal resolution is also absent from Conn College’s policy. Although informal resolutions are not strictly ruled out, it is not clear how students may request them or if students can agree to mediate conflicts.

The college’s two-person investigation team identifies and reviews evidence, makes findings of fact, and decides whether to declare the accused student responsible for sexual misconduct. A complainant can request a review if the investigation clears the accused student. If an accused student is found responsible for a Title IX violation, however, he or she cannot request a review until after sanctions are determined.

A three-person panel convenes with the limited authority to determine sanctions. The panel cannot revise or modify the investigators’ findings. If investigators conclude that a policy violation occurred, using the preponderance standard (“more likely than not”), the sanctions panel reviews the report as well as any impact statements submitted by the students. It then levies a penalty, which can range from a warning to expulsion.

As with most Title IX policies, the school reserves the right to take “whatever measures it deems necessary” to preserve campus safety after receiving a Title IX complaint. These interim measures may include modified living arrangements, no-contact orders, or barring the respondent from campus pending an investigation.

The complainant can withdraw their complaint. However, the Title IX Coordinator may still decide to proceed and to impose certain restrictions, such as a no-contact order between the parties. The college Title IX Coordinator can also reopen an investigation if there is “extraordinary cause” to do so.

As a final step, Conn College’s Title IX Coordinator may, but is not required to, review the investigation report and sanctions “for any additional remedies that may be necessary beyond the disciplinary process”—this suggest a one-way ratchet, in which the Coordinator has the authority to increase sanctions but not to overrule them.

The Conn College Honor Code

Conn College claims to be one of the few secular, non-military schools with a comprehensive honor code that establishes standards and expectations for all members of the campus community. Students who enroll in the school sign a pledge to uphold the Honor Code and refrain from actions that will “dishonor” the college.

Behaviors considered to violate the Honor Code range from academic cheating to misuse of a college ID. Honor code violations are subject to their own procedures, separate from Title IX proceedings.

Conn College has a unique disciplinary method for students who violate the Honor Code. These matters are sent before an Honor Council made up of 17 students – with a student chair and four students from each class. The associate dean of student life serves as an adviser to this group, which determines whether a violation has occurred and metes out sanctions.