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OCR administratively closes the College’s Title IX investigation

The Office for Civil Rights has administratively closed its investigation into Grinnell College. Photo by Ellen Schoenmaker.

In a special campus memo released Wednesday, Aug. 30, President Raynard Kington addressed the closure of a two-year long investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) into allegations of “discrimination on the basis of sex and also retaliation” against students by Grinnell College. 

“[The College] will continue to broaden our efforts to reduce the incidence of sexual misconduct while expanding our work to address other forms of discrimination,” Kington wrote.

Leah Barr ’18, co-leader of campus advocacy group Dissenting Voices, talked with The S&B about the organization’s concerns regarding the closure of the investigation. 

“The school settled with the survivors, which would lead me to believe that that’s why they withdrew that complaint. It could’ve been a condition of the settlement,” Barr said.   

The specific terms of the settlement, however, are confidential. Whether or not the withdrawal of the complaint was a condition of the settlement cannot be determined. Still, Barr plans to look into the records of the 2015 Grinnell College Title IX investigation by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. 

“Mostly what I’m looking for is correspondence between OCR and Grinnell, and OCR and the complainants, any documentation and interviews from the complainants and any documentation or interviews from the respondent, which in this case is Grinnell College,” Barr said.

The timing of the closure follows recent procedural and administrative changes within the OCR. The Trump administration’s new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations and Outreach in the OCR, Candice Jackson, issued a memo this summer to the OCR regional directors, mandating that “the OCR will only apply a ‘systemic’ or ‘class-action’ approach where the individual complaint allegations themselves raise systemic or class-wide issues or the investigative team determines a systemic approach is warranted through conversations with the complainant.” This suggests that when a complaint regarding an individual case of Title IX infringement is filed, such as the complaint filed against the College, the ensuing investigation may not attempt address recurring or systemic Title IX violations by the college or university. 

The Jackson Memo was issued on June 8, 2017. On July 28, the College was notified by OCR that it had closed its Title IX investigation.

The College responded to the closure of the investigation in a Campus Memo: “The [OCR] notice stated: ‘OCR has determined that there are no systemic issues pending that warrant continuing the investigation.’” The abandonment of the investigation, however, may be the result of the abrupt OCR mandate rather than simply a lack of systemic Title IX abuses by the College.

Title IX Coordinator Angela Voos emphasized the importance of Title IX in not only preventing sexual misconduct, but for the Grinnell College community at large. 

“Our work needs to continue to be broad. It’s not Title IX, it’s the whole community,” Voos said. “The more we can do in terms of educating people on consent and helping people understand healthy relationships and healthy sexuality, the closer we can get to preventing issues that are happening.” 

Looking forward, Voos said,  “we want to continue to build ways that are trauma-informed to respond — confidential ways — like through Grinnell Advocates.” 

While upcoming policy changes have not been concretized, Voos suggested that policy governing the ways in which the College determines disciplinary measures will not include the implementation of standardized disciplinary measures for a given form of misconduct. 

“That’s not actually best practice, to do mandatory minimums. What is best practice is to have ‘typical outcomes,’ which is what we have, which is dismissal or suspension depending. In the next policy iteration — we do it every year — we are going to change the language to be ‘typical’ in response to that concern, but we won’t have mandatory minimums.” 

As the current presidential administration threatens to erode mechanisms for enforcing Title IX regulations, colleges and universities may face an increasing independence that had previously been curtailed under the Obama administration. Any changes to the College policy will be noted in this year’s upcoming Annual Title IX Report which will be published online.

The Office for Civil Rights has administratively closed its investigation into Grinnell College. Photo by Ellen Schoenmaker.
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