Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released a proposal on Nov. 29 detailing new policies relating to how all education facilities address sexual harassment and assault allegations. The rules address the responsibility placed on schools under Title IX, the federal protection law against discrimination. DeVos claimed the intention of the policies is to balance the rights between the accuser and the accused in sexual misconduct cases. However, they would ultimately cushion the rights of the accused, and prioritize schools rather than survivors.
The proposed rules come as a result of rising pressure on the Department of Education from higher education facilities to ease Title IX regulations. Prestigious schools such as Yale have spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying the Trump administration for looser regulations. During the Obama administration, the Department of Education investigated about 400 colleges accused of violating Title IX, some of which spent as much as $600,000 to avoid any reduction in federal funding or damage to their reputation. Under the new policies, schools would get exactly what they have been aiming for: a lighter “burden” in cases of sexual harassment and less frequent investigations. While institutions would save around $300 million in the next ten years under the new policy, the regulations come with the much higher cost of providing limited protections for survivors that are in dire need of support.
Initially, the new set of rules would redefine sexual harassment under the law. The Obama administration defined sexual harassment as any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” but the new definition would state that an act is only sexual harassment if it is “So severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity.” With this definition intact, an act of sexual violence less physically brutal than rape may not be taken seriously if the school does not consider it extremely “severe.” However, a school should not decide whether to investigate a claim based on how it evidently affects the survivor. An abuser should not be left with a free pass purely because the survivor has maintained a solid GPA or involvement in extracurriculars. Factors such as these do not measure the emotional effect the harassment had on the survivor and should not be used to justify sexual violence.
Under the regulations, schools will also be less liable when survivors come forward. A school would not be required to take action if the harassment occurs apart from school activities or programs, even if it occurred between classmates. However, schools should be required to investigate allegations if they occur between students, regardless of the location of the harassment or assault. Without any investigation or confrontation of the event, survivors could be placed in classes alongside their harassers, leaving them reliving the trauma of the experience.
The rules also make clear “the importance of supportive measures” for the accused. The new process would allow defense attorneys to cross-examine victims. This process is unethical because it could be used to dissuade victims from reporting the harassment. It could also make it much easier to discredit the victim’s claim, possibly causing the school to take the claim less seriously.
According to a study found in the Journal of Forensic Psychology, only 5.55% of reported rapes are determined to be false. Fabricated accusations of sexual harassment are extremely rare. Simultaneously, only about 23% of rape victims notify the police. Schools should be encouraging survivors to come forward rather than mandating additional help for accused abusers.
The Department of Education has the authority to hold schools accountable when they violate the rights of a student, but they are buying into the colleges’ bribed desire for looser Title IX regulations. Schools are attempting to silence victims to save money. Campuses should be safe environments for students rather than places where they are confronted with trauma from their past. Betsy DeVos wants to yield fairer trials for the accused, but in reality these rules are formulated to protect institutions, not people. Survivor support should be the priority, not saving money.