Between a Rock and Title IX

Professor says Goodwin College fired her for refusing to reveal the identity of a student who confided that another professor wanted sex in exchange for better grades. What kind of confidentiality does Title IX allow for?

October 22, 2019
 
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A former professor of mathematics at Goodwin College in Connecticut says she was fired for refusing to reveal the identity of a student who disclosed that she’d been sexually harassed.

The professor, Laura Jean Champagne, filed a lawsuit against the college this month in a federal court, alleging wrongful termination and retaliation. The college says the complaint is misleading and that Goodwin works every day to ensure the safety of everyone on campus. Champagne’s claims nevertheless highlight how Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 defends students against harassment -- but doesn't necessarily protect their identities, or those people on campus who seek to protect them.

Champagne, who began an assistant professorship in math at Goodwin in 2018, says she became friendly with a student in two of her classes and regularly met with the student to work over lunch or coffee. At one such meeting, Champagne says the student told her that an unnamed professor offered to give her better grades if she became his “mistress.” The student also allegedly said the same professor had offered other students a similar arrangement.

“Shocked and concerned” by the revelation, Champagne says she begged the student to name the professor so that she could report him. But the student allegedly refused, “adamantly.” The student also told Champagne that she did not want the information, or her name, reported, according to the lawsuit.

Unsure how to respond, Champagne contacted a campus administrator and asked for the name of the campus's Title IX coordinator. A few days later, at a May professional development event, Goodwin’s provost allegedly approached Champagne to ask her why she wanted to know about the Title IX coordinator. Champagne allegedly shared what she knew -- but not the student’s identity.

At a subsequent meeting with the college’s head of human resources, Champagne was allegedly pressured to reveal the student’s name. But she said the student did not want her identity revealed, and that she couldn’t violate that trust. Champagne did offer to ask the student whether she’d reconsider or share additional details, however.

Goodwin encouraged Champagne to do so, according to the complaint. But the student still "adamantly refused and unambiguously conveyed" that she "did not wish to be identified in connection with her initial complaint concerning her professor’s sexual harassment of her."

In June, Goodwin told Champagne to make a formal incident report. She complied, leaving out the student’s name.

The next month, Champagne says, she was again pressured during a meeting with various administrators to disclose the name of the student. And again she said she couldn’t violate the student’s wishes. A human resources employee allegedly then verbally asked Champagne what the student would say “if she knew you were going to lose your job.”

Champagne says she responded by saying that the college allows anonymous complaints, and that it could attempt to remedy Title IX violations by offering more training on sexual harassment. Some present at the meeting allegedly agreed that Champagne herself could be an anonymous reporter -- but that she’d still have to reveal the student’s name.

She didn’t. Days later, according to the lawsuit, Goodwin terminated Champagne’s employment. Her federal lawsuit against the college alleges retaliation in violation of Title IX and wrongful termination. Regarding the latter count, the lawsuit says that Champagne "spoke out as a citizen on a matter of public concern when she raised concerns about widespread sexual harassment" at Goodwin. She’s seeking monetary and punitive damages.

The college said in a statement that it won’t “specifically comment on pending litigation, but the complaint is inaccurate, incomplete and misleading. We believe this lawsuit has no merit and plan to defend against it vigorously.”

Generally, Goodwin said that it has a “zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment of any kind.” That includes “any person whose actions result in protecting the identity of an alleged predator.” And Goodwin has “consistently demonstrated” its commitment “to doing everything in our power to ensure every student, faculty and staff member feels safe and secure.”

Champagne’s attorney, Michael Reilly, was not immediately available for comment or to provide additional information about the case Monday. But taken at face value, the complaint raises a number of issues about confidentiality and reporting sexual harassment.

Title IX: Law and Spirit

Michael Dolce, an attorney with Cohen Milstein and chair of its sexual abuse practice group, said that Champagne at least appears to stand a good chance of winning her case. But that doesn’t mean that professors are supposed to protect the identity of student accusers, he said. That’s because professors are "responsible employees" under Title IX, meaning they do in fact have to disclose what they know about reports of sexual harassment on their campuses.

Yet that’s assuming that all professors and other responsible employees are properly trained in how to handle misconduct reports. With that proper training, he said, professors would know that when a student starts to disclose abuse, they are supposed to stop the student and gently explain their obligation as responsible employees to share all they know about Title IX violations with the relevant office. 

It’s unclear from the complaint itself if Champagne did have that training. But details about it suggest that perhaps she didn’t, Dolce said, such as the fact that Champagne needed to email someone to find out who the Title IX coordinator was. 

What if a student blurts out a disclosure before even a trained professor can explain what it means to be a responsible employee? Dolce explained that that’s something of a gray area. But, in general, he said federal guidance regarding Title IX suggests that student confidentiality must be breached in cases of sexual violence, such as an assault or attempted assault. That’s because the alleged offender presents an immediate safety threat to the greater campus community.

Yet in cases like Champagne’s, Dolce said, where the harassment was nonviolent, quid pro quo -- however abhorrent -- colleges may take a bit more time to address the problem in ways that don’t breach student confidentiality. Goodwin was right to tell Champagne to circle back to the student and ask again if she’d be willing to name the professor. But it could have done more.

Given that several students were allegedly verbally offered grades in exchange for sexual favors at Goodwin, for example, Dolce said that the college could have sent out innocuous-sounding mass email reminding students that harassment, including quid pro quo harassment, is illegal and should be reported. Such an email, of course, must include information on where and how to make reports, including anonymous ones.

Where confidentiality may be preserved, it should be, as “you don’t want to discourage future reporting by saying, ‘We’re not going to honor your confidentiality,’" Dolce said. "It’s critical in dealing with survivors of sexual harassment or sexual violence that we minimize violations of privacy.”

Dolce said he didn’t fault the provost for initially asking Champagne what the Title IX case was about and generally becoming involved. The “universe” of actors in a sexual harassment case extends beyond just the Title IX office, he said. But one of the most “disturbing” allegations in Champagne’s complaint was the “wedge” some administrators appeared to be willing to put between the student and a trusted professor. Dolce cited the suggestion that Champagne imagine how the student would feel if she knew Champagne’s job was on the line -- which apparently it was.

“That is really putting the student in a difficult situation,” Dolce said, especially “within the context of a Title IX case.”

Erin Buzuvis, a professor of law at Western New England University and an expert on Title IX, said via email that there may indeed be some gray area between sexual harassment and violence in terms of the need to breach student confidentiality. But reading the case somewhat differently from Dolce, she said that that's only if college policy defines reportable sexual misconduct in a way that excludes quid pro quo. Otherwise, Buzuvis said, everything -- including names -- needs to be reported by responsible employees.

Goodwin's Title IX webpage notes that faculty and staff members are “responsible employees,” and that “notice to them is official notice to the institution.” Faculty and staff members “will keep your information private, but they are obligated to report instances of sexual misconduct to the Title IX coordinator for investigation.”

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