By Lauren Puglisi, REACH Intern
In November of last year, The Department of Education, headed by Secretary Betsy DeVos, proposed changes to Title IX, the law which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs. The new proposal increases the rights of the accused and decreases college’s liability to investigate incidents of harassment. As a college student interning with REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, these proposed changes deeply upset me as they fail to prioritize protecting survivors.
The new proposal would, in effect, exclude certain cases from investigation by narrowing the definition of sexual harassment and discourage survivors from reporting by making the reporting process more intimidating and confrontational.
The current Title IX definition of sexual harassment requires schools to intervene in any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” The new proposal seeks to tighten this definition so that schools would only be required to investigate cases that are “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” This means that students may be forced to endure repeated abuse before schools are required to intervene. By that point, a student may already experience symptoms of trauma such as persistent fatigue, sleep disorders, nightmares, fear of recurrence, anxiety focused on flashbacks, and depression, all of which have long-term psychological impacts and interfere with their ability to focus on their education.
The new definition of sexual harassment only includes on-campus incidents, however, the majority of a college student’s life may be spent off-campus. 80% of college students in America live off-campus, most college parties and socializing occurs off-campus, a growing number of students study abroad, and online harassment is becoming increasingly prevalent. Thus, this proposal fails to protect many students throughout their time at college.
Another major proposed change to Title IX is the requirement of live hearings in all post-secondary education cases including cross-examination. These new additions can intimidate survivors from reporting and retraumatize survivors, as the accuser’s party is now able to directly question survivors about their mental health, substance use, and other irrelevant details of the event which perpetuate victim-blaming and rape myths.
Additionally, students will not be appointed representation for hearings, rather they will be required to pay for their own. When there is an existing power dynamic between abusers and survivors, rather than create a more equal playing field, this would highlight economic inequality by further disadvantaging low-income survivors and granting privileged abusers more privilege. This allows for situations where wealthy abusers are not held accountable for the pain they cause simply because of their ability to afford talented lawyers.
Overall, these policies communicate to survivors that their government and their schools will not take proper action to support them. At a time when we are seeing the rights of immigrant survivors and trans-survivors threatened and perpetrators of sexual assault occupy some of the most powerful seats of our government, now more than ever, survivors need to be given the assurance that they are protected by their educational institutions and that they have a right to receive an education free from violence.
Now is a crucial moment to support survivors and stand to oppose these changes. One way to do this is by submitting a public comment on the proposed changes. These comments are required by law to be read by the Department of Education, so I strongly consider taking a few minutes to do so and encouraging friends and family to do the same. The deadline for comments is January 30th at 5:00 PM (ET). More information on how to write an effective public comment can be found here.
In addition to commenting, I urge you to continue to compassionately support survivors in your life.
If you are a survivor seeking support or want to learn more about how to best support a loved one, REACH’s hotline is available 24/7. We are here for you now and always.