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Can a Parent File a Title IX Complaint on Behalf of a College Student?

Watching your child leave to go off to college evokes a variety of emotions in parents. We experience pride and excitement, but these positive emotions are often accompanied by a sense of loss and fear. We are losing contact and control over a life we carefully nurtured for years. We can no longer protect that child from dangers that we can see but they may not.

When you see or even suspect that your child may be harmed by sexual assault or discrimination on campus in violation of Title IX, it is natural as a parent to want to step in to ensure that your child receives help and vindication. The same is true if your child is accused of a Title IX violation.

While parents can assist in many ways, their ability to act on behalf of their college student is limited if that student has reached the age of legal majority.

Title IX Rules Set the Minimum Standards

One of the most important things for families to realize about a Title IX case is that federal laws and regulations only provide the starting point. The government rules establish standards for the policies individual colleges and universities apply to students.

When a student enrolls at an institution, they agree to abide by the school’s rules and the procedures for enforcing those rules. They establish a contractual obligation. To protect a student’s rights and interests, then, it is important to understand the standards imposed by Title IX and the school’s policies applicable to Title IX complaints.  

Examine the Details in School Policies

Unless a school’s Title IX policies violate the legal standards currently in force, those policies and procedures will govern a Title IX case on campus, and to a certain degree, in court as well. Every college and university sets its own rules, so it is crucial to examine the wording of those rules in detail to determine what actions parents can and cannot take to assist students when it comes to Title IX complaints.

Often college or university policies will specify that:

  • The school owes a duty to the student rather than the parent. The Title IX office will not report involvement in a Title IX investigation to a parent.
  • If a parent tries to contact the school’s Title IX coordinator, the coordinator must obtain permission from the student before the coordinator will be able to speak to the parent.
  • A parent cannot gain access to the student’s educational records unless the student is under the age of 18 or has given explicit permission
  • Parents must sign a release form before a school representative can speak with them about a Title IX investigation
  • A parent may serve as an advisor during a Title IX hearing

Some of the policies are initiated to comply with federal requirements. For instance, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restricts information that can be given to parents without a student’s consent, even when parents are paying for everything.

One thing that is important to be aware of with school policies is the way those policies interact. The policies may allow a parent to serve as an advisor during a hearing, for example, but those policies may also allow the student to have only one advisor. That means that if the parent sits in the advisor seat, the student will not be able to have an attorney or other experienced advisor on hand.

Filing a Title IX Report vs. Filing a Complaint

Initiation of a Title IX case on campus often involves two phases. Someone may file a report of suspected illegal conduct or they may file a formal complaint. Individual school policies usually describe the different procedures and what they involve.

Federal law currently defines a “formal complaint” as a document, either submitted in written or electronic form, that alleges sexual harassment in violation of Title IX against a particular respondent and requests the initiation of an investigation into the alleged violation. The formal complaint must contain the signature of the complainant and must be filed with the school’s Title IX coordinator.

A report is less formal. Some schools refer to these as a “report of concern.” A report can lead to a formal complaint and a formal investigation, but the school has the discretion to determine the appropriate response. A student or staff member can file a report to learn more about the services available and options for proceeding.

Federal law allows schools to accept reports of Title IX concerns from anyone, regardless of whether they have a connection to the school. That means parents may be able to file a report with the school if they are concerned about sexual discrimination, harassment, or other misconduct. Filing a formal complaint, however, is a different matter.

Complaints are Handled Formally

A formal complaint can only be filed by the complainant or by the school’s Title IX Coordinator. That means a parent cannot file on behalf of the student unless that parent is legally authorized to act on behalf of the student due to age or other factors.

Federal law only requires schools to accept formal Title IX complaints from individuals who are attempting to participate in the school’s education programs or activities at the time of filing. This includes students who are on a leave of absence or have applied but have not yet been accepted. It does not include parents. 

The only exception is that if the person complaining of the violation does not file a complaint or is not eligible to file a complaint, the school’s Title IX Coordinator is permitted or sometimes obligated to file a complaint. For example, if school administrators are aware of sexual harassment by someone in a position of authority in the school, and the person victimized does not want to file a complaint, the Department of Education can find that the school has violated Title IX through deliberate indifference if the Coordinator fails to file a complaint about that conduct.

Work with an Experienced Attorney to Protect and Enforce Title IX Rights

Just contemplating the facts surrounding a Title IX allegation can be horrifying for a parent. With our longer perspective on life, we can see the potential impact and how life-changing it can be.

Whether you are the parent of a potential claimant or respondent in a Title IX case, it is wise to consult a knowledgeable attorney to learn about how to protect your student’s rights and interests going forward. As attorneys committed to justice in Title IX investigations, the team at Nesenoff & Miltenberg, LLP is ready to assist. Contact us today for a confidential consultation.