Today Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos announced sweeping changes to Title IX that would eliminate from schools at all levels nearly all responsibilities to protect students from sexual harassment and violence. The proposed changes would take our education system back decades to a time when there was very little recourse for students to report harassment or assault and obtain needed support. Very often victims – mostly young women – – just dropped out of school.
Coming from a conservative administration which has shown great tolerance for sexual harassment and assault, it probably should not surprise us. From the start, Secretary DeVos embraced the recommendations of groups representing formerly accused persons wanting to overturn guidelines adopted under the Obama Administration. DeVos virtually ignored survivors’ stories and it appears she did not take seriously input from college, university and school administrators about the success of their programs to better protect students, keep them in school and make campuses safer.
Along with staff and interns from NOW, I spoke out against the proposed rule change recently, citing how dangerous the changes would be for survivors. We told Department of Education officials that the changes would tip the scales in favor of alleged perpetrators and lead to higher rates of sexual harassment and violence. We know that sexual violence affects one in five girls ages 14-18, one in five college women, one in ten college men and one in four transgender and gender non-conforming students. The proposed changes, if adopted, will expand the epidemic even further.
The single most damaging provision is the limitation to responding only to complaints that happen on campus. It is estimated that 87 percent of college students now live off campus; so that vast majority of victims of harassment and assault would have little protection. Their only recourse would be to report incidents to law enforcement authorities and there is a long history of these types of complaints being ignored.
Other harmful changes include a restrictive definition of sexual harassment that would require students to endure severe harassment before the school has to respond; allowing schools to adopt a criminal standard of evidence in deciding cases when Title IX is a civil rights law and a lower standard of evidence is more appropriate; setting up a situation for unbalanced investigations where schools are required to start with the presumption that the named perpetrator is not responsible (thus the victims are not to be believed); allowing alleged perpetrators to directly question their accusers causing more trauma; and, permitting religious exemptions for schools to avoid compliance with Title IX protections placing at serious risk LGBTQIA students, pregnant and parenting students (some are unmarried), and student who need access to birth control and abortion care.
If these harmful changes are adopted – which we expect may be the case even though thousands of students, parents, and activists will protest – we will have to turn to lawmakers in the next Congress to restore Title IX’s proven protections so critical to keep students safe and in school.