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Recently, I served on a committee where staff members of the committee wanted to ask administrator candidates if they had heard about the “Dear Colleague” letter. I was confused. What was this important letter that seemed to be of critical importance? When I mentioned this document to workshop attendees and co-presenters at the ASA annual meeting, I was met with blank faces.
While most faculty members know that our campuses have policies regarding sexual harassment, many of us are unaware of the existence of 2011 and 2013 Dear Colleague letters and their contents. Consequently, we may be unaware of rights that we may be violating pertaining to sexual harassment, sexual violence, and pregnant and parenting students.
The 2011 U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights Dear Colleague letter addresses broadly sexual harassment and sexual violence on college and university campuses as well as in high schools and outlines the Title IX protections that are found in programs and activities in these institutions. This document is available at www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104.html.
The 2013 Dear Colleague letter cautions educational institutions and faculty about violating the Title IX rights of students when a student may have medical problems that require long absences, such as when a student is unable to attend class due to childbirth or complications of labor and delivery (www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201306-title-ix.pdf). In one recent case, a pregnant student was advised by her doctor to have an emergency caesarean section. The student notified her professors of this situation, yet they were reluctant to provide her with proper accommodations and instructed her to return to classes, withdraw, or suffer a penalty (Ingeno 2013). In an email exchange between the student and one of her professors, the student was told to review the syllabus and the university handbook, noting that pregnancy was not an excused absence. While some of faculty may find this an appalling response, others may see nothing wrong with it. This is the problem.
Some institutions request or require that statements regarding disabilities be included in course syllabi. Yet this does not tackle the Title IX concerns found in some of the Dear Colleague letters. Our educational institutions should be more proactive in making sure we are all doing the right thing by sharing these documents with us on a regular basis. For instance, our attendance policies should not be in violation of federal laws. As important, faculty must be included in the conversations that take place on these issues with their campus administrators. After all, we all share an interest in the health and wellbeing of our students.
Shirley A. Jackson, Southern Connecticut State University
Ingeno, Lauren. 2013. “Childbirth Doesn’t Count?” Inside Higher Education, August 1. www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/01/college-faulted-not-considering-childbirth-legitimate-reason-miss-class