What DeVos' Title IX Changes Could Mean For Dealing With Harassment & Sexual Assault On Campus

A 60-day public comment period concluded Wednesday, following the Department of Education’s release of new rules governing the way that school and universities across the United States handle allegation of sexual assault and harassment, and per the Federal Register, nearly 103,000 comments and letters were received from both individuals who were for and against the new changes.

Most of the comments, however, appear to oppose Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ proposed changes to the federal guidelines known as Title IX, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual assault, in primary and secondary schools, as well as college campuses, NBC News reports.

“I was a victim of campus sexual harassment,” one person wrote in response to the new rules. “It is clear the proposed rules would not protect students from sexual harassment.”

Under the Obama administration, a guidance document now known as the “Dear Colleague” letter was issued, and explained schools’ responsibility for responding to and preventing harassment and assault under Title IX. The definition of sexual assault was also less specific, with it being described as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” Vox reports.

But in November, DeVos, who has been critical of Obama-era guidelines and has supported schools that choose to report undocumented students and the federal funding of guns for staff in schools, announced new regulations, which included a narrower definition of sexual assault. According to the new regulations, sexual assault would be defined as an “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity.”

Another notable change includes incidents only taking place on campus or at a school-sponsored event being investigated. In addition, accused students would be presumed to be innocent throughout the disciplinary process, as well as afforded all evidence collected against them and being able to cross-examine their accuser through a representative or attorney, NBC News reports.

In another rule change, allegations are required to be reported to officials who have the authority to take “corrective action,” such as a school’s Title IX coordinator. But critics of the new changes are concerned that students wouldn’t be able to report to another adult that they may trust.

In addition, these new regulations would make it harder for schools to be liable for failing to address harassment. While rules under the Obama administration held a school responsible for failing to address an incident if it “reasonably should” have known about the incident, the new regulations require that the school have “actual knowledge” of the incident, Vox reports.

“These rules ratchet up the standard for schools to be held responsible,” B. Ever Hanna, the End Rape on Campus policy manager, said. “It’s going to be really, really difficult — pretty much impossible, honestly — for a school to be found in violation of Title IX.”

Critics have said that these rule changes could potentially allow for schools to scale back their efforts for addressing and preventing sexual assault and harassment on their campuses.

While the Education Department just closed comment on the proposed changes, Hanna says that some schools are already making changes to their policies in anticipation of the final decision.

According to Hanna, the University of Michigan recently announced a new student sexual misconduct policy requiring an in-person hearing in which an accused student or their adviser can cross-examine an accuser. Although, the university said the policy change was in response to a court decision in a case brought forth by an accused student.

According to Vox, Title IX coordinator Emily Ralph from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey was let go from her position in early January. While student were upset to see Ralph leave, Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger said that the changes at the university weren’t inspired by the new regulations.  

“You need a structure that’s going to be responsive to changes to regulation at this kind of period of time,” Baenninger said.

But critics of the new Title IX rule changes could make situations like these more of a reality.

For now, the Education Department could take up to several months to review the comments and letters on the proposed changes, and even longer before any changes go into effect.