An era of strict policy came to a close last Friday when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced changes regarding Title IX and the subsequent withdrawal of the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Assault.
The U.S. Department of Education released an interim Q&A that outlines the department’s current expectations for public schools at all levels, including universities, for the time being as the DOE revises regulations.
“This interim guidance will help schools as they work to combat sexual misconduct and will treat all students fairly,” added DeVos in a statement released by the Department of Education. “Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
Passed by Congress in 1972, Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination in any educational institutions that receive federal funding. The intent was to eliminate sex-based discrimination in schools and athletics, but several Supreme Court rulings have relied on the statute as an umbrella for protections against sexual harassment and assault.
“I think [CSULB] will continue to do what we do to investigate any allegation of sexual assault or any violation of Title IX as we know it,” said Terri Carbaugh, associate vice president for CSULB’s public affairs. “Students are very much protected by a statute and executive order of the issue.”
The newest addition to Title IX was the Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Assault, which was introduced in 2011 during the Barack Obama Administration. The provision provided guidelines for campuses on how to address sexual violence.
Though not formally recognized as law, it did outline how the Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights would review any complaints of Title IX violations.
Under the guidance of the 2011 colleague letter provision, one instance of sexual harassment or assault can create a hostile environment for students. By impeding a student’s ability to learn, the education institution would be considered in violation of Title IX, and schools run the risk of losing federal funding if these issues are not addressed. Further guidance was provided in a Q&A released in 2014, but both documents have been withdrawn and archived by the current Department of Education since DeVos’ announcement.
Advocates for Title IX protections and legislators met the announcement with criticism while critics of Obama-era policies celebrate the return of due process.
“I like how they were treating [Title IX] back then. If it’s so recent and it’s a step in the right direction, why should we reverse it now? Even if it was a step in the right direction, it didn’t seem like it was enough though. Things weren’t as fully established as I think they were planned to be.” said Elliot Gatica, a fifth-year economics major at CSULB.
University campuses and campus authorities across the U.S. have also continued voicing their opinions on the matter since last Friday, including California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White.
“[Friday]’s letter from the [Office of Civil Rights] does not change CSU’s approach because compassion and fairness to all parties is a bedrock of our existing policies,” said White in a statement released after DeVos’ announcement.
White adds that the current policies protecting students and faculty will remain in place, but that CSU policies are under constant scrutiny in order to provide a safe environment for victims and fairness of the law for the accused.
Earlier this year, however, the Daily 49er reported on the very same policies that were handed down to CSULB by the Chancellor’s Office. The policies were later ranked as a “red-light” by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. According to the organization, the wording of CSULB’s sexual harassment policy can allow the policy to be misconstrued in such a way that could stifle freedom of speech.
While freedom of speech is not the issue at hand, the potential for false accusations to arise beneath such unclear wording is what DeVos takes issue with, though only an estimated 2 to 10 percent of sexual assault accusations turn out to be false. DeVos criticized the Obama Administration’s broad policies in her speech at George Mason University, saying “too many cases involve students and faculty who have faced investigation and punishment simply for speaking their minds or teaching their classes”.
Jeane Caveness, CSULB’s title IX coordinator, wants students to know that regardless of the Office of Civil Rights’ changes in policy that students will still have access to resources and the support that they may need.
The Title IX office plans to refocus their efforts in getting information out to the campus community. With the aid of a grant, given by the California governor’s Office of Emergency Services, CSULB is able to provide and promote advocate services and prevention education such as the “Not Anymore” program, a mandatory online Title IX training at the beginning of every semester.
“We cannot promise what the outcome is going to be. We can never promise that,” Caveness said. “But we want students to know they are more than investigations. We know that students have faced trauma and that if they need assistance, that assistance is going to be there for them.”
DeVos said that she and her department will continue consulting with “survivors, campus administrators, parents, students and experts on sexual misconduct” as they work to finalize these regulations.