On January 26, 2015, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault (Task Force) published new guidance on building partnerships between law enforcement agencies and institutions of higher education. Included in the guidance is a sample MOU (memorandum of understanding) between an institution of higher education and a law enforcement agency which provides for a coordinated response to sexual assaults. The new guidance emphasizes the absence of any “one size fits all” approach that institutions need to follow, leaving flexibility for each institution to determine the best approach to managing relationships with local law enforcement agencies. This recent publication is part of a series of Task Force publications addressing sexual assault in higher education in the past year, including a report urging colleges and universities to take certain steps to address sexual violence, a sexual misconduct policy checklist, and a sample MOU to document an institution’s relationship with local rape crisis centers.
The sample law-enforcement MOU is divided into sections providing suggested approaches for addressing the following topics:
- Communication and Coordination, which includes clarifying jurisdictional boundaries, sharing statistics, coordinating technology resources, and sharing other information on sexual assaults where appropriate;
- Sexual Assault Prevention, which provides for cooperation in developing, implementing, and measuring the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention programs;
- Response to Reported Sexual Assault, which addresses issues such as evidence collection and preservation, confidentiality and investigation protocols, and coordinating victim support efforts; and
- Training, which provides for training of investigators and first responders, joint training efforts, trauma-informed response training, and cross-training of law enforcement and college personnel in the other party’s policies, procedures, and resources.
For any institution considering creation of a law-enforcement MOU, the new guidance serves as a useful reference tool for communicating the higher education perspective to law enforcement. Previous Title IX guidance from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights should also be considered, as it suggested that institutions may want to enter into an MOU with local law enforcement, but also cautioned that such an agreement must allow the school to meet its Title IX obligations to resolve sexual assault complaints promptly and equitably, and must comply with FERPA and other privacy laws.
Cultivating a close working relationship with law enforcement and a coordinated plan for addressing various aspects of sexual-assault response and communications, independent of a specific episode, is a prudent way for higher education institutions to increase law-enforcement cooperation during a specific investigation. As the new Task Force guidance itself clarifies, each institution should customize such plans to its unique environment and, when crafting an MOU (or other agreement) with local law enforcement, should seek guidance from legal counsel to ensure consistency with federal, state, and local laws that may apply.