United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently announced the Department of Education (DOE) is rescinding its Obama-era “guidance” on sexual harassment.
DeVos said the new guidance is giving colleges and universities “more freedom to balance the rights of accused students with the need to crack down on serious misconduct.” In trying to get colleges to take sexual assault more seriously, the argument within higher education has risen regarding whether the Obama administration had created a system that treated the accused unfairly.
Two standard sets of guidelines are being revoked in order to move forward with DeVos’ plan. The Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Violence (DCL) dated April 4, 2011 and the Questions and Answers on Title IX Sexual Violence dated April 29, 2014 have officially been withdrawn. A statement released by the DOE stated the two documents were removed because they “ignored notice and comment requirements, created a system that lacked basic elements of due process and failed to ensure fundamental fairness.”
DeVos added the “era of rule by letter is over,” and the DOE is currently working on a new Title IX regulation that “better serves students and the schools.”
The DCL was originally issued by the Office for Civil Rights to explain the requirements of Title IX cover sexual violence and to remind institutions of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence. Under the Obama administration’s archived website, it is stated the DCL provides guidance on the “unique concerns that arise in sexual violence cases,” as well as listing the Title IX requirements related to sexual violence, such as the requirement to publish a policy against sex discrimination, designate a Title IX coordinator and adopt and publish grievance procedures.
DeVos has released an interim Q&A for schools to investigate and adjudicate allegations of sexual misconduct under federal law until a permanent regulation has been put in place that explains DOE’s current expectations of institutions.
“This interim guidance will help schools as they work to combat sexual misconduct and will treat all students fairly,” said DeVos. “Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
The hot-button concern for Keene State College is whether DeVos’ plans will change how the campus handles acts of sexual violence.
KSC Title IX Coordinator Jeff Maher insists this new guidance will not have a large effect on campus. He said the guidance that was released by DeVos consists of mostly efforts KSC has been implementing already.
“If a student is accused of sexual assault, we refer to that person as the responding party, not as the accused student…not any sort of language that could be evaluating,” Maher said. “I would meet with that student with a letter that says the college has received a complaint, this is when we received it, this is what the complaint is, these are your rights and let’s schedule a time for us to talk. That’s what we’ve always done here, but it appears as though some other schools haven’t, which would be the reason for the change.”
KSC Interim President Dr. Melinda Treadwell echoed Maher and said the campus has been demonstrating best practice in regards to sexual assault. She said her biggest concern revolves not around policy, but rather the communication effort between the administration and those who experience sexual assault. “My hope is that victims won’t feel they shouldn’t come forward, so I think our communication effort has to be Keene State has long been adhering to a best practice; you must feel your concerns will be respected and report any situation,” Treadwell said.
However, KSC Department Chair of Women’s and Gender Studies Dr. Patricia Pedroza Gonzalez said she feels the new guidance from DeVos will further discourage students from coming forward and reporting. Pedroza Gonzalez added the current regulations are already arduous and somewhat unclear, which will make it harder for students to be aware of the appropriate steps to take regarding sexual assault.
“…people are already intimidated, it’s already complicated, and now it seems that schools will no longer be obligated [to handle sexual violence], which is something we need to understand. Are we really aware of what the current policy is anyway? Everybody should be aware of it because it [sexual violence] could happen to anyone. If we aren’t even aware of the current policy, how can we be aware of the changes?” Pedroza Gonzalez said.
There is no “happy ending with this,” according to Pedroza Gonzalez, because she said the institutions can now rid themselves of responsibility. Accusations of sexual assault, sexual harassment or rape can damage the institution’s reputation, she said, and in such competitive times in higher education, she said she is “not surprised” colleges and universities would want more freedom from the previous regulations.
“If we already know this is happening and it doesn’t work, now [with the new guidance] we will not have anything that pushes us to keep improving. It feels that many steps, many rights, are going backwards,” Pedroza Gonzalez said.
To counteract this fear of moving backwards, KSC Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Dr. Dottie Morris said KSC has a strong education program regarding sexual violence and prevention and that generates more confidence in the system put in place on campus.
KSC has been tackling issues of sexual violence for much longer than other similar-sized institutions, according to Maher, and have employed a sexual violence prevention coordinator for “close to 15 years,” long before the DCL made its debut in 2011.
While Pedroza Gonzalez said she knows KSC makes efforts to combat sexual violence, she wants a clearer policy. She added she wants KSC’s current policies, as well as any changes being made to it under the Trump administration, to be clearly stated somewhere publicly for administration, faculty, staff and students to be able to reference. A suggestion she had was on the college’s website under Title IX.
Maher said he does his best to become involved on campus in hopes to make the policy clear and make members of the community comfortable with him. “…students don’t have to report to a nameless administrator. If I can get students to see me as Jeff as opposed to Mr. Maher, the Title IX Coordinator, than that ultimately helps to encourage reporting,” Maher said.
Maher said supporting students is the first and most important step in any sexual violence situation. Morris added to this, saying the primary concern is about caring for the students and making sure they are safe.
“I think the whole idea around community and community rebuilding is that when you have a culture of any type of violence, it’s that it has an impact on all of us. It doesn’t just have an impact on the person who is the victim, but it has an impact on everyone who might witness it or know that person and the same way for the person carrying it out,” Morris said. “There are definitely things in the culture that reinforces that it is an okay behavior, and so it is up to us as a community to try and shift that paradigm. It’s not just the relationship between two people; it’s between all of us and how we speak to each other, talk to each other and interact with each other.”
Olivia Belanger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org