Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is expected to propose a controversial set of sexual misconduct rules for schools across the country ― and survivors’ advocates are not happy.
DeVos is preparing new Title IX policies that would “bolster the rights of students accused of assault, harassment or rape, reduce liability for institutions of higher education and encourage schools to provide more support for victims,” according to an explosive New York Times report published Wednesday.
The potential new regulations for Title IX (the federal civil rights law created to ensure gender equality in education) include several changes that have advocates up in arms, including narrowing the definition of sexual misconduct and allowing assailants to cross-examine their accusers during the mediation process. Title IX regulations apply to all levels of schooling, but advocates are focusing on universities due to the epidemic of sexual violence that takes place on campuses.
“What is reflected in the Times article is a tacit endorsement of campuses where it is safer to commit sexual assault than to be a survivor,” Jess Davidson, executive director of the survivor advocacy organization End Rape on Campus, told HuffPost.
Almost all of the known proposed regulations would put survivors at risk, but one stands out as particularly alarming. The potential new Title IX guidelines would only hold universities accountable for sexual misconduct that is “said to have occurred on their campuses,” according to the Times.
Title IX advocates and sexual assault survivors agree that this regulation could potentially be disastrous: A whopping 87 percent of college students live off campus. Additionally, many social events take place off campus at bars, Greek life houses, apartment complexes and sports teams’ houses.
“This is really just saying that ‘it doesn’t matter that you were assaulted three minutes off campus. You still have to share a classroom with your rapist. And you don’t have any rights,’” Sage Carson, manager of the anti-sexual violence organization Know Your IX, told HuffPost.
Title IX is not meant to be focused on where the assault occurred but how that violence is impacting someone’s education. Sage Carson, manager, Know Your IX
“Title IX is not meant to be focused on where the assault occurred but how that violence is impacting someone’s education. And the impact of that doesn’t change depending on where you were assaulted,” Carson continued. “This was a really clear message that DeVos just doesn’t understand the point of Title IX at all.”
Although Title IX is best known as a broad tool to combat gender discrimination in education, it also provides important protections for survivors of sexual assault, including the right to an investigation and the ability to change class schedules so as not to interact with an assailant.
Davidson, who has previously blogged for HuffPost, said she was “absolutely outraged” by the off-campus provision. “Whether or not your assault happened in a campus facility or an off-campus facility ― students deserve just as much access to their Title IX rights as any other student,” she said.
Sejal Singh, policy coordinator for Know Your IX, brought up the sexual abuse scandal involving Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor accused of sexually abusing hundreds of athletes.
“Would it make sense for Larry Nassar not to be held accountable if he only abused student athletes at off-campus events?” Singh said. “It’s absurd.”
Not only would this proposed rule ignore the rampant sexual violence that often takes place at fraternity and athletes’ houses, it would likely further isolate marginalized students who commute to campus.
“When you look at community colleges and commuter colleges ― this guideline would prevent marginalized students from having their claims considered,” Davidson said. “Especially when it’s already more difficult to report sexual assault if you are a student from a variety of historically underserved backgrounds.”
As a Title IX coordinator and sexual assault survivor herself, Taylor Parker knows just how dangerous the off-campus provision could be.
“A lot of assaults happen at off-campus parties,” Parker told HuffPost. “If off-campus misconduct creates a hostile learning environment on campus, then this provision completely misses the point of what a civil rights law is attempting to accomplish.”
“I feel like my government has basically abandoned me,” she added.
I feel like my government has basically abandoned me. Taylor Parker, sexual assault survivor & Title IX coordinator
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill told The New York Times that the department is “in the midst of a deliberative process,” saying the proposed regulations obtained by the paper are “premature and speculative.”
DeVos, however, has been on a mission to overhaul the Obama-era Title IX guidelines and regulations since she was confirmed last year. In 2017, DeVos met with people “wrongly accused” of sex crimes (a group consisting mainly of so-called men’s rights activists) and, not long after, rescinded an Obama-era Title IX guideline called “The Dear Colleague Letter.”
Title IX advocates and survivors told HuffPost they’re prepared to fight, and other supporters should be too.
“This policy actually can be stopped,” Davidson said.
The Department of Education will likely release a final proposed Title IX regulation in the next few days or weeks. Legally, the department is required to consider all comments from the public before making a decision.
“Everyone has the opportunity to stop this from happening, but we absolutely have to participate and comment,” Davidson said. “It’s actually one of the best opportunities we’ve ever had to stop something created by the Trump administration in its tracks.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.