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January 24, 2019

DeVos Takes Aim Against Survivors

Proposed changes to Title IX would burden victims and empower perpetrators.

Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education (DoE) have released their proposed changes to Title IX, a federal civil rights law in the U.S. that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in most schools, including private institutions. The proposed regulations will have devastating consequences for victims of sexual harassment and assault. Among the most egregious are those that limit the definition of sexual harassment, end investigations into off-campus events, and require schools to force survivors to withstand in-person cross-examinations.

DeVos proposes to limit the definition of sexual harassment to “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 recipient’s education” on campus. By this definition, students will be forced to endure repeated, escalating abuse before schools are required to investigate and offer support. This policy also effectively excludes one-time assaults. The new guidelines additionally preclude people from reporting incidents that happen off-campus—this applies not only to a student who is raped off-campus by their professor, but also to a 12-year-old being cyberbullied for their gender identity by their classmates.

There are several reforms that must be made to Title IX, mainly concerning how investigations can be made fairer and more standardized across schools. The proposed changes by the DoE under DeVos clearly and consistently favor the accused over survivors—implying that there have been more victims of false abuse allegations than abuse survivors who are afraid to report. In reality, it is the exact opposite. Studies have estimated that only 2–10 percent of sexual assault allegations are falsely reported, while it’s estimated that 90 percent of assault survivors do not report. The real problem seems to be that survivors do not feel safe coming forward to hold their abusers accountable.

Any survivor can testify to the difficulties of pursuing their studies following assault or harassment. 81 percent of female and 35 percent of male sexual assault survivors report long-term impacts to their mental health, such as PTSD. To make matters worse, abusers are often in positions of power and serve as gatekeepers for academic advancement. In some cases, students are forced to rely upon their abusers to progress through college—seeking accountability would inevitably delay or suspend their studies. The proposed guidelines will likely exacerbate this problem by establishing a new mandate for schools to conduct live cross-examinations, where the victim can be questioned in real time by a representative of the accused party. This not only gives abusers the upper hand, but also re-traumatizes survivors.

Universities often stress the importance of a positive, nurturing, academic environment, but I can’t see how that is possible when students are not guaranteed basic protections. I have personally seen a shocking number of my classmates and colleagues at this institution and others face sexual harassment and then have to decide whether they want to embark on a dubious administrative process that may not result in justice. Additionally, the proposal to limit investigations beyond on-campus or school-sponsored events ignores the abuse that can occur at academic conferences, non-school-sanctioned parties, or even off-campus social meet-ups with colleagues. We cannot accept rule changes that stymie an already inadequate system.

As a graduate student, I can attest to the huge amount of mental and emotional commitment it takes to do well in my own studies. I can’t imagine the additional effort it takes to be a survivor on campus, struggling with whether or not to come forward. Although Title IX may be due for improvements, reducing accountability for abusers and increasing the threshold for investigation cannot be the answer. The online comment period for the proposed rule changes to Title IX is open until January 30, 2019, and I would urge everyone to speak out against rule changes that will take power away from survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

You can submit a comment using the Hands Off IX guide here or submit directly on the DoE website here.

Alex Guzzetta is an MSTP student in the Biological Sciences Division and is writing this on behalf of the MeTooStem organization.

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