Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, 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 proposed rule would increase the rights of the accused and decreases college’s liability to investigate incidents of harassment. It would, in effect, exclude certain cases from investigation by narrowing the definition of sexual harassment and discourage survivors from reporting by making the process more intimidating and confrontational. As an intern with REACH Beyond Domestic Violence and as a participant in demonstrations expressing solidarity with those affected by sexual violence, I am deeply upset by these proposed changes, as they fail to prioritize the protection of student survivors.
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 of sexual harassment 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 also only includes on-campus incidents. However, the majority of a student’s life may be spent off-campus: Living off-campus, attending social events off-campus and studying abroad. Thus, this proposal fails to protect many students throughout their time at college.
In my opinion, one of the most troubling proposed changes, though, is the requirement of live hearings in all post-secondary education cases including cross-examination. 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. This can retraumatize survivors and intimidate them from reporting.
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.
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 through the Federal Register on the proposed changes. These comments are required by law to be read by the Department of Education, so I urge you to take a few minutes to do so and encourage friends and family to do the same. The deadline for comments is Jan. 28 at midnight Eastern Time.
Regardless of what the Department of Education decides, all members of the Brandeis community, especially the administration, must continue to support student survivors, assuring them that they are heard, believed and have a right to an education free from violence.