updated 1:30 a.m. Monday
After months of student protest, the University eliminated the one-year statue of limitations on student sexual misconduct.
The new statute means that the University disciplinary process can respond to reports filed against a student until that student graduates, according to the revised policies. The change was proposed by a student task force. It reflected a reinterpretation of federal regulations under Title IX and resulted from several weeks of negotiations with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta informed the student body of the change in an email Sunday evening.
“We never made the change because we wanted to or because of an institutional desire to reduce the time,” Moneta said in an interview. “There was no clarity in the Office of Civil Rights guidelines. It was an interpretation that we thought we had to comply with.”
The statute of limitations for sexual misconduct—the period of time in which students can report an incident—was reduced from two years to one year in January in order to comply with requirements that Duke negotiated with the Department of Education in 2011. The Office of Civil Rights stipulated that statutes of limitations for reporting harassment and sexual misconduct must be the same for both students and employees. At Duke, the statute for employees is one year, and administrators changed the student statute to match that.
Students responded enthusiastically to the elimination of the statute of limitations. Junior Stefani Jones, DSG vice president for equity and outreach and leader of the student task force for reviewing the policy, said she was “absolutely ecstatic” about the change.
“I couldn’t be happier that we saw such a groundswell of support from the Duke community and that the administration was receptive to our proposal and our concerns,” Jones said. “When you have so many students rallying around an issue, it becomes hard to ignore.”
The initial reduction in January drew prolonged student outcry, sparking opinion pieces in campus publications, poster campaigns and a unanimous Duke Student Government resolution Sept. 26 condemning the change.
The student task force found that other universities—including Harvard University, Brown University and Princeton University—have no statute of limitations with regard to reporting sexual misconduct.
The task force proposed eliminating the statute of limitations for student sexual misconduct and began meeting with administrators including Moneta; Stephen Bryan, associate dean of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct; Benjamin Reese, vice president of the Office for Institutional Equity; and Cynthia Clinton, director for harassment prevention and gender equity programs.
Bryan noted in a Sept. 7 article that he was not aware of a pending change to the policy.
Within the last two or three weeks, Duke began negotiations with the Office of Civil Rights, Moneta said, adding that the process was strictly between attorneys. Moneta was informed of the office’s decision at the end of last week and finalized the policy during the weekend.
The key to the change lay in the specifics of the Title IX requirement, Jones said.
The Office of Civil Rights did not mandate that the student statute of limitations match the employee and faculty statute of limitations, but the student statute of limitations for harassment had to match the statute for sexual misconduct.
“What changed is that previously [Office of Civil Rights] insisted that our harassment policy and sexual misconduct policy be consistent in time frame requirements,” Bryan wrote in an email Sunday. “Through our conversation with [the Office of Civil Rights] last week, we were able to have a meeting of the minds that it would be OK to have a different statute of limitations for faculty and staff respondents than for student respondents in both policies.”
The policies needed to align because the Office of Civil Rights classifies sexual violence as a subset of sex discrimination that falls under harassment, Bryan noted. The office told administrators in 2011 to make the time frames consistent, and they chose to lower the sexual misconduct statute of limitations from two years to one year to match the University-wide harassment policy.
The decision to reduce the reporting time frame was made because the harassment policy was vetted by the several faculty governing bodies, and 96 percent of cases of sexual misconduct in the past 10 years were reported within one year of the incident, Bryan said. He added that he does not expect many more new cases coming forward that are older than one year.
But Bryan noted that any case brought forward, including ones that may not have met the earlier statute of limitations, will be evaluated for disciplinary action under the new policy.
“We originally presumed that commonality in things like the statute of limitations was an obligation, and going back to [the Office of Civil Rights] we were pleased to discover that that’s an area where we could have some differential between students and employees,” Moneta said.
The new policy amends the University-wide harassment policy so that a complaint against a student may be filed at any time and is actionable until the accused student graduates, and the revised sexual misconduct policy matches that time frame. Complaints against non-students must still be filed within one year of the most recent instance of alleged harassment.
“It’s a big step forward for the University in trying to protect victims as much as possible,” DSG President Alex Swain, a senior, said. “It says a lot about the University’s priorities about what type of culture we have, a culture that’s sensitive to victims and fair.”