[Correction, Sept. 21, 2018: An earlier version of this article stated that New York State laws provide equal or lesser protections than federal laws on sexual assault. This is incorrect; New York State laws provide equal or greater protections.]
[TW: This article discusses sexual assault and harassment.]
As students across the country filtered back to campus in August, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was preparing new policies on campus sexual misconduct that enhance the rights of students accused of sexual harassment and decrease institutions’ liability. These policies, which also apply to elementary and secondary schools, narrow the definition of harassment, making it more difficult for survivors to seek institutional recourse. Although the administration has not officially announced these policies, The New York Times recently reported the proposed changes (The New York Times “New U.S. Sexual Misconduct Rules Bolster Rights of Accused and Protect Colleges,” 08.29.2018).
These revisions would affect the processes of Title IX, the federal statute that covers sexual violence on campus as well as gender-based discrimination at educational institutions. Students have been increasingly vocal against sexual assault and harassment on campus and have called for institutions to take action to support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable.
DeVos’ proposed rules change guidelines put in place by the Obama administration, critiquing them for denying the accused due process and burdening schools with bureaucratic decrees (The New York Times, “Rules Bolster Rights of Accused”). The recommendation centers impartiality in the investigation process, but at the expense of survivors’ emotional well-being and options for institutional recourse.
While the Obama-era policy defined sexual harassment broadly, stating, “[It is] unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” DeVos’ new rules would adopt the Supreme Court definition: “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.” According to the New York Times, after a period of public comment, the new rules would have the force of law without requiring legislation by Congress (The New York Times, “Rules Bolster Rights”).
The proposed changes differ from Obama-era policies in a variety of ways, all of which are characterized by relative leniency toward the accused. The Obama administration required a less stringent burden of proof to return a guilty verdict than would the proposed changes. The regulations would also eschew a suggestion that schools provide an appeals process. In addition, they employ mediation to settle informal resolutions, allowing parties to request evidence from and cross-examine each other. The Obama administration, by contrast, forbade even voluntary mediation due to potential hostility toward and further trauma for the victim (The New York Times, “Rules Bolster Rights”).
Furthermore, under the new guidelines, schools would only maintain legal responsibility for investigating formal complaints that have already been filed. According to The New York Times, “[The complaints must be made to] ‘an official who has the authority to institute corrective measures.’” This policy is in stark contrast to a 2001 standard in which a school is legally liable for investigating a claim. Additionally, complaints pertaining to abuse that happened off-campus would not be considered the responsibility of the school (The New York Times, “Rules Bolster Rights”).
The regulations would likely reduce the average number of sexual assault investigations by colleges and schools from 1.18 per year to just .72 (The New York Times, “Proposed Rules Would Reduce Sexual Misconduct Inquiries, Education Dept. Estimates,” 09.10.2018). Although this would save $19 million per year for colleges and universities and $54 million for school districts, it would promote nonpunitive, short-term measures against the accused (The New York Times, “Proposed Rules Reduce Sexual Misconduct Inquiries”; The New York Times, “Rules Bolster Rights”).
At Vassar, there is a history of student distrust in the Title IX office. According to the results of the 2017 What Happens Here Survey, over half of students lack confidence in the office’s capacity to investigate claims in an unbiased manner. Reporting rates were equally alarming: only 10.3 percent of cis women, 6.3 percent of cis men and 25 percent of non-cis students responded that they reported their experience with sexual assault (VC Campus Climate Survey, “Perceptions of Vassar’s Title IX Sexual Assault/Misconduct Procedures, Outcomes, and Information,” 2017).
According to Director of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action and Title IX Officer Rachel Pereira and Associate Director of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action and Title IX Investigator Brittney Denley, perceptions have improved over the past year, as an increased number of students have contacted their of- fice for assistance. Pereira and Denley plan to continue to better their relationship with the student body, focusing on gaining insight into the perceived biases impacting their process. In an email, they stated, “[We need] open communication, mutual respect, and a commitment to providing equitable processes.”
The office is uncertain as to how the College must alter its policies; however, it must comply with New York State laws regardless of federal laws, which typically provide equal or greater protection than the former. Even if DeVos’ proposal goes into effect, Vassar’s standards may change little.
The Miscellany News believes that Vassar should resist the changes proposed by the Trump administration regarding sexual misconduct, work to regain students’ trust and increase transparency about sexual assault on campus and the College’s response. This juncture provides an opportunity for Vassar’s Title IX office and the college community to reassess the institutional avenues available to survivors of sexual harassment and assault. Specifically, we advocate for continuous student involvement in decision-making about resources for sexual assault victims.
Ultimately, it is of the utmost importance that the College remains devoted to upholding standards for handling sexual assault and to improving the relationship between the Title IX office and the student body.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of the Miscellany News Editorial Board.