Advocates: Changes to Title IX reverse progress made against sexual violence in schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says changes to the law governing how schools and colleges respond to complaints of sexual misconduct assure due process to those who are accused.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says changes to the law governing how schools and colleges respond to complaints of sexual misconduct assure due process to those who are accused. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Leaders of state advocacy groups urge University System of Georgia to protect survivors

Three Georgia advocates for survivors of sexual violence combine forces today in a guest column about the new rule from the U.S. Department of Education on how schools and colleges response to sexual violence.

In remaking the rule, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said she was seeking to ensure due process for accused students. “Today we release a final rule that recognizes we can continue to combat sexual misconduct without abandoning our core values of fairness, presumption of innocence and due process,” said DeVos in a media call in May.

But Jan Christiansen, executive director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Jennifer Bivins, executive director of the Georgia Network to End Sexual Violence, and April Ross, executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, disagree.

By Jan Christiansen, Jennifer Bivins and April Ross

As Georgia’s experts in the fight against gender violence, the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Georgia Network to End Sexual Violence, and the Georgia Commission on Family Violence want to express concerns with the final rule on Title IX, which contains new regulations for how schools and colleges respond to sexual violence. {Title IX is a 1972 law barring campus sexual discrimination in programs that receive federal funding.}

These new regulations -- slated to go in effect next month -- reverse significant progress made against sexual violence in schools across the United States. They let schools off the hook for addressing sexual violence, and will deter survivors from reporting.

We urge the University System of Georgia to mitigate the consequences of these changes to the law, which leave survivors unprotected, by codifying and promoting policies that provide fair and accessible options for survivors to continue pursuing higher education.

The new rule narrows the scope of the definition of sexual harassment to include only instances that are severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive. Schools must also dismiss incidents that occur during online school, study abroad, or on off-campus housing. These changes are arbitrary, harmful, and dramatically reduce the number of survivors protected under Title IX.

Additionally, the new regulations disproportionately put the burden of proof on survivors, require that schools are “reasonably prompt” in investigations (rather than obligating schools to follow a specific timeframe), and mandate live hearings, which require parties undergo cross-examination in order for adjudicators to consider past statements.

Subjecting survivors to a trial-like process, especially cross-examination, is retraumatizing, and may discourage victims from coming forward. Under these regulations, an investigation can be a drawn out, lengthy, and painful process, which will very likely disrupt the education of many survivors.

These changes are unacceptable, particularly considering the rate in which college women in dating relationships experience violence. Now, almost half of dating college women (43%) report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors, while one in five college women will face physical violence, sexual violence, or threats of physical violence.

Considering these statistics and the experiences of Georgia’s advocates serving young survivors, we urge the University System of Georgia to codify 10 recommendations, which fall under five larger demands. These five demands include:

  • Annual trauma-informed training for individuals involved in Title IX processes.
  • Minimize survivor harm during live cross-examination.
  • Ensure that survivors and the accused have explicit access to supportive services, whether or not the case meets Title IX investigation requirements.
  • Ensure Title IX processes be non-reliant on civil/criminal dispositions.
  • Develop relationships with local domestic violence and sexual violence programs to aide in survivors’ healing process.

Under our recommendations, individuals involved in Title IX processes must receive annual training in trauma-informed practices, adjudication, and investigation. This includes training for panelists who review cases, to ensure that rulings on the relevance of questions asked to survivors are unbiased and protect from re-traumatization. Cross-examination should also occur in a manner which minimizes all harm to survivors. This means that school advocates must be allowed to act as advisors and assist students in navigating meetings, hearings, and proceedings.

While this is a reiteration of right already included under the Clery Act, it is frequently ignored and not explicitly enforced in many schools. {The Clery Act, which took effect in 1991, requires schools to report crime statistics on campus, including sexual assault. They must report incidents that occur on campus, in school buildings off campus and in some property adjacent to campus.}

Cross-examination procedures must be defined, outlining ethical consideration and determining relevance. Additionally, students should have the option to mutually waive live cross-examination.

Title IX proceedings allow but not require the submission of a criminal/civil disposition. Finally, schools should collaborate with local domestic and sexual violence programs to provide students the option to participate in a restorative justice processes (that may occur alongside Title IX proceedings), utilize legal advocates, and work with advocates to aid in the healing process.

The University System of Georgia cannot overhaul the final rule on Title IX, but it can change implementing regulations and include our recommendations. If the recommended protections are not in place, many young survivors will be left without a proper investigation, possibly without the necessary accommodations, and be vulnerable to more harassment and violence.

The changes to Title IX limit protections that protect or support survivors, while lightening the burden on institutions. They force survivors to either be subjected to a distressing court-like trial, share a classroom with their abuser, or drop out of school, thus ending the furthering of their own education -- doing exactly what Title IX had previously been designed to prevent.

All of our recommendations for the University System of Georgia can be viewed here.

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