Public comment period open until Jan. 28
One of the jobs of the U.S. Department of Education, led by Betsy DeVos, is to enforce a pivotal statute in the Education Amendments of 1972 called Title IX. This statute was established to protect people from sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. Title IX mandates that educational institutions fulfill their legal obligation to protect victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape, and provide an educational environment that is free of sexual misconduct and hostility.
Recently, however, the Trump administration has chosen to interpret this statute in a different light — one that disempowers accusers and aggressively asserts the due process rights of the accused. The proposed changes uproot the years of progress made under former President Barack Obama, who attempted to respond to sexual harassment claims in schools with swiftness, vigor and fairness for all parties involved.
The Department of Education issued a set of policy changes to Title IX in November under the guise of “encouraging more students to turn to their schools for support in the wake of sexual harassment.” But it is apparent that the proposed changes reek of a heavy and persistent bias, and the sympathy and support lies unmistakably on the side of the accused.
Under the proposed regulations, sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.” This narrow and lax definition thoroughly undermines the spectrum of sexual offenses that ranges from verbal to physical abuse. It also presumes that there is a universal standard of suffering that must be felt by the victim before sexual misconduct is deemed “objectively offensive” and therefore punishable by law.
Perhaps one of the more blatantly egregious requirements by the Department of Education states that live hearings with cross examinations must be held by schools. This form of interrogation is unnecessary, inherently intimidating, and can further traumatize a victim. Most universities, including the University of California, already ensure due process by having the accused question complainants and witnesses through a non-threatening neutral intermediary.
A mere 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are reported to the police, and only 3 percent of rapists spend a day in prison. While there are a multitude of reasons for these staggering statistics, one reasonable explanation is that victims may feel re-victimized and invalidated by the same legal process that is supposed to give them uncompromised justice. Prioritizing the accused in fear of false accusations has damaging consequences for the mental health of victims and sets a precarious precedent for the effective administration of justice in all cases.
The law shouldn’t serve as another assailant. Those who suffer the emotional and physical distress of sexual trauma should not be subjected to unnecessary legal wrangling by the justice system. If these policy changes are implemented, they will completely stifle the voice of victims who may already be reluctant to come forward.
The Editorial Board urges students, faculty and staff to provide feedback on the proposed changes at Regulations.gov by Jan. 28.
Written by: The Editorial Board