Universities have a duty to ensure the safety of their students, and they are expected to make sure that no one suffers harassment in any form. Sex harassment and other protected class harassment, sexual assault, bullying, theft, assault and other misconduct are all risk areas for institutions in higher education.
Springfield, Ohio-based Wittenberg University is just the latest example of what can happen when a university fails to respond promptly to reports of sexual assault – a federal investigation, a settlement involving payment for affected students’ counseling, submission to reporting requirements and monitoring, plus untold damage to the institution’s reputation.
When a university discovers any harassment that has occurred or a student reports it, administrators must conduct a proper investigation. This helps the university establish the validity of the complaint and take the appropriate steps to remedy it and to prevent further misconduct. Investigations can reduce liability for damages and ensure a safe environment for students.
The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, enacted in 2013, expanded protections for victims of domestic violence and requires all higher education institutions to conduct yearly training on how to conduct investigations.
A university should consider several factors prior to conducting an actual investigation. These include:
- Determining the necessity of conducting the investigation
- Identifying the pertinent laws that must be applied to the investigation
- Creating a checklist for do’s and don’ts of conducting the investigation
- Defining the criteria for establishing credibility of the statements given by everyone interviewed during the investigation
- Reviewing important considerations for drafting the conclusion following the investigation
Benefits of Internal Investigation
Internal investigations benefit the university in a number of ways, such as:
- Instances of misconduct and harassment can be reduced substantially
- The damages that may be required to be paid to the complainant can be minimized
- The university can showcase its commitment towards prevention and intervention of misconduct by conducting effective investigations
- When done properly, the internal investigation can avoid the need for investigation by some other agency, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights
Training Is Key
Anyone who conducts this type of investigation must be trained to do it the right way. Merely having the experience of conducting investigations without knowing the art and science of the process is not enough. The institution will be able to demonstrate its commitment to prevention of harassment to any outside agency only when its investigators have undergone appropriate training programs.
Does your institution’s staff understand the proper methods for conducting a harassment investigation? Harassment expert Dr. Susan Strauss, Ed.D., recently conducted a webinar, “How to Conduct a Harassment Investigation in Higher Education: A Required, Essential & Critical Step in Resolving a Complaint and Minimizing Liability,” in which she discussed the required steps for an internal investigation for incidents of harassment in higher education.
Susan addressed how to determine whether an investigation is needed, if at all, academic freedom concerns, how to draw appropriate conclusions after an investigation, assessing credibility, and more.