By Michael Petro  |  Buffalo Business First  |  7/14/15

Firm helps prepare higher ed for new laws

Phillips Lytle attorney Amanda Lowe saw the legislation coming. After all, it was promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul in their 2015 Opportunity Agenda from earlier this year and the issue at hand needed to be addressed.

Plus, with Lowe being a member of the law firm’s education practice team, she has kept a close eye on the rise of incidents of sexual assault on college and university campuses and the far-reaching impact they can have.

So it was no surprise to her and her colleagues when Cuomo announced last week he had signed into law the “Enough is Enough” legislation in an attempt to help combat what has been a growing problem statewide.

The law requires higher education institutions to adopt a set of comprehensive procedures and guidelines, including a uniform definition of affirmative consent, a statewide amnesty policy and expanded access to law enforcement to ensure the safety of New York college students.

Lowe said the legislation will greatly affect our region, considering Western New York’s heavily populated landscape of colleges and universities. They are going to have to make some changes to comply with the legislation, she said, as well as similar regulations in the federally enacted Clery Act, which took effect July 1.

Although the 90-day deadline issued to comply with most of the legislation may be daunting, she said Enough is Enough offers much-needed guidance. It’s not a matter of whether the legislation goes far enough but making sure the proper procedures and policies are in place and then followed, she added.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, college campuses in this state reported 388 forcible sex offenses and there were more than 5,000 offenses nationwide in 2013. Cuomo’s new legislation is derived from the SUNY system, which had already gotten tougher on the problem by issuing a uniform sexual assault policy that was adopted last October.

“Everyone is just trying to get it right, and before it was a gray area without a lot of guidance,” said Lowe, whose experience includes investigations of Title IX and Clery Act violations, sexual assault, harrassment, student/faculty misconduct and civil rights violations.

Phillips Lytle was prepared for this type of announcement by the governor. It said that with the increase in sexual assaults and with new legislation on the federal and state levels still ahead, it has been such a pressing issue that the firm set up a practice team to help universities and colleges manage the problem.

The firm has represented and provided legal advice to area colleges and elsewhere for years, but when campus assault investigations and policy reviews started to come into the spotlight, the firm assembled a subsection to its current practice group. It’s called the Campus Accountability Team, which, Lowe explained, is basically an extension of the services that the firm had already been providing but in a more focused manner.

Kenneth Manning, leader of the higher education practice at Phillips Lytle, also guides this team of attorneys. He represents higher-education clients in matters of governance, internal investigations and litigation.

The team assists educational leaders in such matters and is a source of advice on prevention and response to on-campus issues involving sexual abuse, exploitation, crisis management, regulatory compliance and due process.

“This is an issue already in the national spotlight and it’s only going to continue to be in the press. There’s going to be more rules and regulations that will continue to come out, and (the Campus Accountability Team) tracks all of that for our clients,” Lowe said.

With the problem of sexual assault on the nation’s campuses exploding into the public consciousness, Phillips Lytle sent four presenters, including Lowe and Manning, to a summit about the issue in April in New York City. The day-long event also featured Liz Seccuro, a victims’ rights advocate, activist and author, as well as other speakers.

Institutions are paying a heavy price, including public embarrassment and civil liability, for not having a credible system in place, according to Phillips Lytle. The firm’s efforts are designed to educate the school community about policies and procedures, proper investigations and comprehensive training, as well as compassionate and fair responses when incidents do occur.

Lowe said the firm has seen an increase in interest among clients and potential clients in the education practice area, with many of the questions related to what needs to be put into place as part of new legislation. With the Clery Act just going into effect and Enough is Enough legislation set to take effect in 90 days, she expects even more questions as higher ed makes it a priority to review their codes, policies and procedures.

The 90 days to comply will also coincide with the same period in which colleges’ Annual Security Reports are due, she added. The report, which includes school policies and procedures for sexual assault investigations and student discipline, must be completed by Oct. 1.

The Buffalo law firm will host another seminar for clients on Aug. 27 to discuss what was covered at the April summit and touch on the impact of the new state legislation.

With dedicated assistance from Phillips Lytle and other law firms, we can only hope that colleges and universities being better prepared will lead to a safer setting for students to learn.