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Thought Leadership

Student Conduct in Study-Abroad Programs: Do Your Policies Cover it?

May 17, 2016

In Doe v. Middlebury College, an undergraduate student at Middlebury College sued the College after an internal investigation found that Doe sexually assaulted a student during a study-abroad program. The complainant was not a Middlebury College student, but a participant in the study abroad program along with Doe at the School for International Training. As a result of Middlebury’s investigation, Doe was expelled just prior to his senior year.

Doe’s complaint was that Middlebury had no authority to conduct the internal investigation, because the host school for the study abroad program had already completed an investigation of the incident and exonerated him. Moreover, Middlebury’s study abroad policies provided that students are subject to the policies and discipline of the host institution while studying abroad. Nevertheless, Middlebury proceeded with the second investigation based on language in its sexual misconduct policy stating that Middlebury has jurisdiction over conduct occurring “off campus.” Doe sought a preliminary injunction preventing Middlebury from expelling him and allowing him to complete his studies.

Federal court Judge J. Garvan Murtha of the District of Vermont granted Doe’s request for an injunction, which reinstated him as a student at Middlebury pending the outcome of his suit. The Court found that Doe sufficiently demonstrated that Middlebury violated its own internal policies when it conducted a second investigation after Doe was already investigated by the institution in charge of the study-abroad program.

While the case was still pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, Doe and Middlebury College reached a settlement. The only public details regarding the settlement are that Doe will complete his education elsewhere, and the federal lawsuit was dropped.

The take-home lesson here is one of consistency in drafting and applying your policies. The study-abroad policy and the sexual misconduct policy appeared to have conflicting provisions regarding off-campus behavior, and these subtle kinds of inconsistencies can become blatant problems for an institution. Consider taking the time to cross-check your policies and ensure your intent is clear.