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New Title IX interpretation undermines victims on college campuses

Credit: Diane Lee/ Credit: Diane Lee/

Every 98 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Going through such harrowing events can have severe emotional and psychological impressions on the victim. In most cases, perpetrators of these acts are able to walk away freely without punishment for their actions, thus silencing the voice, dignity, and rights of the people they have sought out as prey.

Rather than working to fight for these victims, Secretary of Education Bestsy DeVos has decided to focus her efforts on giving the accused of such crimes, who she argues are treated unfairly, due process and a larger voice in the matter. The newly proposed Title IX guidelines to be implemented at colleges supposedly seeks to make investigations into sexual assault allegations more equitable for both the accuser and accused. These new guidelines remove the two month time limit on investigations, allows the accused to appeal the accusation against them, and raises the “preponderance of evidence” to a “clear and convincing evidence” standard.

But many are worried these new guidelines limit the rights previously held by victims of sexual assault, making allegations against the accused harder to prove, and thus making it increasingly difficult for survivors to seek the justice they deserve.

The restructuring of Title IX practices onto college campuses is one of many changes made by the Trump Administration to initiatives made under President Obama’s Administration. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 states that “no person in the United States shall on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In the Obama-era, the Office of Civil Rights asserted that this law should be applied to all schools to protect girls and women, usually the victims of these crimes, from sexual assault or harassment. This has led to the creation of Title IX offices at many universities that train students and faculty members on how to respond to allegations of sexual harassment or assault while also strengthening the university's actions in response to such allegations.

Carnegie Mellon University has adopted its own Office of Title IX Initiatives and a sexual harassment and sexual assault policy to foster a positive living and learning environment “that promotes the confidence to work, study, innovate and perform without fear of sexual harassment or sexual assault.” This policy lays out detailed procedures to address complaints and identify instances of sexual assault and provide students with resources to deal with their effects.

The most controversial part of Obama’s original Title IX assertion was that schools were told to adopt a “preponderance of evidence,” which places more emphasis on how convincing evidence is over the amount of evidence presented to decide if a student is responsible for an act of sexual assault. Instances of sexual assault usually take place in private rooms, without outside witnesses, making proof beyond a reasonable doubt difficult to gather. This lower burden of proof set forth by the preponderance of evidence standard takes this into account and allows for an increase in actions taken by school officials in response to sexual assault allegations.

Many critics of this act, such as DeVos, have argued that Title IX’s enforcement at schools lessens the point of view of those accused, thereby ignoring their first amendment right to freedom of speech. Last year, an open letter by 21 law professors argued that although “sexual harassment represents unacceptable conduct, and those found responsible should be appropriately sanctioned,” the Office of Civil Rights has “unlawfully expanded the nature and scope of institutions’ responsibility to address sexual harassment, thereby compelling institutions to choose between fundamental fairness for students and their continued acceptance of federal funding.” Since colleges stood to lose access to student federal aid if they didn’t implement this act, the lawyers argue that this led to colleges choosing to side more heavily with victims of sexual assault, thus downplaying the accused's side of the story.

“The union bosses made it clear: They care more about a system — one that was created in the 1800s — than they do about students," DeVos said in a speech given at Harvard University. "Their focus is on school buildings instead of school kids. Isn’t education supposed to be all about kids?”

Even if the Office of Civil Rights’ actions were an administrative overreach that placed the behavior of universities under strict federal scrutiny, it led to a quick and immediate response by school officials to listen to the “kids” at their schools. These actions made students feel more empowered to come forward after being assaulted, to make known the ordeal they had to live through, thus, to some degree, giving them back the power that was taken away from them by such an act. Raising the level of evidence to be presented takes those rights away from students, and limits the progress that has been made to make instances of sexual assault known.

But just because a school has to take sexual assault allegations more seriously, doesn’t mean that school officials should feel compelled to implicate the accused student to make it seem that they are being proactive. A 2010 study conducted at Northeastern University indicates that the prevalence of false allegations is between two percent and 10 percent with a disproportionate amount of those accused and punished for committing acts of sexual assault being men of color.

The point of Title IX is for universities to be made aware that such acts are taking place on their campuses and to take allegations of sexual assault more seriously. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), women in college are three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than those not attending a university, but only 20 percent are likely to report this, believing that it is a personal matter that they are compelled to deal with on their own out of fear of retaliation and shame. Harboring such thoughts can often lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. How can we make progress to let assaulters know that their actions have consequences if we don't give victims a safe and supportive outlet to share their experiences?

Many universities, such as the University of Colorado, have chosen to stick to the guidelines put in place during the Obama-era. In a statement made by Holly Hippensteel and Jamie Edwards, representatives of Carnegie Mellon’s Office of Title IX Initiatives, the university does not plan for these new guidelines to immediately impact sexual assault prevention and response efforts at the university, but is moving forward to develop a new policy through public comments.

“We remain committed to providing support, resources and information to individuals in our community who have been impacted by these issues and to providing fair, prompt and thorough investigations and resolution to community members who seek resolution through the University,” Hippensteel and Edwards said in a statement.

Schools should be responsive to acts of assault that take place on their grounds. Students have rights, and it is the duty of the university to assure students that their rights will not be violated, to assure students that they will listen to their students’ concerns and do all they can to deal with the matter. Sexual assault is simply not a crime that lends itself to providing proof beyond a reasonable doubt, when it is well known that such clear proof is not always obtainable. It is, first and foremost, a violation of a woman’s civil rights.