Many students will head off to college this fall looking forward to newfound freedom and academic challenge. When it comes to college drinking, most students understand that underage drinking is illegal and can lead to discipline on campus. What students may not understand, however, is that drinking alcohol, even if legally consumed by students 21 years old or older, can lead to Title IX problems.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities. All public and private elementary and high schools, school districts, colleges and universities that receive any federal financial assistance must fully comply with the directives of Title IX.

Many understand that Title IX was enacted to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities in athletics. What some may not realize is that Title IX is also a means for addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence between intimate partners. Title IX charges are serious. If found responsible after an investigation and a hearing, students face penalties such as academic suspension, expulsion and even criminal prosecution.

Alcohol consumption is a common theme in Title IX cases. Before entering college, students must be educated about consent to sexual activity and the fact that consent cannot be given by someone who is impaired by the effects of drugs or alcohol. Moreover, a student’s impairment does not serve as a defense to determining whether the other party could provide meaningful consent.

Most students are savvy enough to know that if a person is stumbling or swaying, the person is drunk. However, the peril is in the grey area, where a student may look sober, but is in fact intoxicated. Likewise, it may appear that the student is interested in pursuing an intimate relationship. Students should not engage in mind reading. In fact, students should educate themselves on the affirmative or clear consent policies of their chosen colleges and universities.

Before engaging in any sexual activity, students should have an open and frank conversation to ensure that everyone is fully consenting to what may follow. Open, straight-forward, albeit unromantic, dialogue is the only way to protect against future allegations.

Finally, if a student receives a Title IX charge, the best advice is that a student should consult a respected adviser before making statements to campus security, police or university officials.

Susan Stone is a principal and head of the education law practice and Kristina Supler is a principal in the criminal defense and education law practices at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman Co., LPA in Cleveland.

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