Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed several changes to Title IX regulations introduced under the Obama administration, and she is receiving support from those in favor of clearer guidelines and backlash from advocates who say the changes reduce protections for sexual assault survivors.
According to an early draft of the proposal published Nov. 16, the department finds flaws in current regulations, especially with a perceived lack of guidance on how to respond to incidents of sexual harassment.
The changes spell out the legal obligations of schools, including what conduct is actionable as sexual harassment under Title IX, the conditions that activate a mandatory response by the schools and particular requirements that responses must meet to protect the rights of students, according to the proposal document.
The modifications may seem beneficial, however, opponents argue that new measures would create hurdles for accusers and fail to hold schools accountable.
Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a Nov. 16 press release that a new rule that would not require religiously-affiliated schools to request or provide notice of Title IX exemptions to their institutional policies will allow schools to sweep incidents under the rug.
“This is a blatant disregard for the justice of survivors of sexual violence by letting schools off the hook for Title IX obligations and denying survivors, including LGBTQ survivors, their civil right to equal access to education,” Warbelow said in the press release. “The only safe place created for schools with this proposed rule is one for perpetrators. These changes are unacceptable and must be rejected.”
One goal of the proposed amendments ensures accused students due process. DeVos met with several organizations in July 2017 to discuss these rights, including the National Coalition for Men, whose president once defended a football player caught assaulting his then-girlfriend on camera by saying “If she hadn’t aggravated him, she wouldn’t have been hit.” According to a Nov. 16 Vox article, the group has also posted photographs and names of accusers.
While it is important for DeVos to hear all sides of an issue, it is dangerous to give organizations such as the NCFM a platform for their views.
One of the most alarming differences between DeVos and Obama regulations is the narrow definition of sexual harassment. If implemented, the definition of sexual harassment will change from “unwanted conduct of sexual nature” to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.”
Schools would only be required to have actual knowledge of incidents in order to be held accountable for failing to take action on a claim. Currently, schools like Columbia list certain employees, including faculty, as required to report incidents if made aware of them. Under the proposed changes, telling a professor or resident advisor would not be enough to require action, and the student would instead need to file an official complaint. Schools would also only be responsible for responding to on-campus and school-sponsored incidents.
The proposed amendments are dangerous for survivors and advocates who have worked to make their voices heard and increase school accountability. Schools should be held responsible for their students’ safety, but these changes would instead put students at risk and undo the progress that has been made and must continue.