On September 22, the Trump Administration’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, rescinded the Obama Administration’s campus sexual assault guidelines, inciting anger and concern among students and faculty over student protections on campuses across the country.
The guidelines, originally implemented in 2011, were in response to multiple reports of institutions failing to handle sexual assault cases effectively and in a timely manner. They required schools to respond immediately to cases of assault by eliminating the harassment, preventing its recurrence and addressing its effects. With the retraction of the guidelines, many sexual assault survivors worry that institutions will return to their careless pre-2011 investigation standards.
Title IX originally passed into legislation in 1972. The original statue was minimal, but the amendments provided by the Obama Administration has allowed it to cover sexual harassment and sexual violence on a broader scale.
Under Title IX, schools are required to respond and remedy hostile educational environments. Failure to do so could result in a violation that would cause a school to lose its federal funding. To ensure institutions are following Title IX, colleges and universities can refer to documents and procedures provided by the US Department of Education.
The Obama Administration guidelines were delivered in a letter to colleges and universities. Among other changes, the letter instructed institutions to abide by new regulations including:
- Administrators should inform students of their options when reporting an assault.
- Allow students to speak to the local police department.
- Conclude investigations promptly (within 60 days).
- Officers should decide cases of sexual harassment not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but by a “preponderance of evidence” standard.
In her announcement last Friday, DeVos stated that the guidelines from the Obama Administration pushed schools to overreach their authority and that the rules protected survivors at the expense of the accused rights.
In place of the guidelines, DeVos implemented interim instructions that allow institutions to decide the standard of evidence used when handling investigations. The interim instructions also included the option for institutions to abandon the “preponderance of evidence” standard in the Obama Administration’s guidelines for “clear and concise evidence” delivered by the Trump Administration.
Critics of DeVos’s decision say that rescinding the Obama Administration rules will deter victims from coming forward. Victims already face an overwhelming process when reporting sexual assault. However, by allowing institutions to fall back into pre-2011 standards in which Title IX was not being strictly enforced, victims could be subject to unfair and neglectful investigations.
The repeal is also poorly timed, as school policies have already been implemented for the year. Changing these policies now, for better or for worse, would obscure the students’ impressions on how their institution handles Title IX. If institutions decide to relax their standards now, many students may find that their options for prosecution have suddenly been limited, thereby making it possible for schools to marginalize victims.
In response to the new guidelines, advocacy groups such as knowyourix.org are taking action to preserve the 2011 guidelines by encouraging students and faculty to write letters, spread awareness, and create a network of support for victims and survivors.