On May 6th, Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, released new rules around how sexual harassment and assault cases are handled in K-12 schools and colleges.
In a society where sexual misconduct has been and continues to be a large and serious problem on high school and college campuses, Title IX laws play a significant role in protecting our students. Title IX is a federal law that declares, “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”. The laws were first introduced in 1972 and have been recently updated.
To reporters, DeVos says, “Today we release a final rule that recognizes we can continue to combat sexual misconduct without abandoning our core values of fairness, presumption of innocence and due process”. The guidelines have received backlash from many organizations, including a lawsuit against DeVos on May 14th by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who claimed the Title IX changes make it, “more difficult for victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault to continue their educations”.
Disapproval towards the new guidelines is justifiable considering the fact that they have several flaws: they undo years of work achieved by the Obama administration and take us many steps backward.
Under the Obama administration, Title IX rules heavily opposed discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexuality. However, the Trump administration has taken a different approach regarding gender discrimination. The Trump administration allows schools and states to enforce their own rules. For instance, a religiously conservative school can legally discriminate against LGBTQ students. The new Title IX rules do not offer (guaranteed) protection to queer students and make queer victims of sexual misconduct less likely of coming forward.
The guidelines don’t clearly define what qualifies as sexual harassment/assault, makes it difficult for survivors to come forward, and loosen responsibility off of schools in regards to investigating cases. These new changes move away from the goal of making campuses safe and discourage victims from coming forward. In addition, these changes prevent schools from investigating off-campus cases and only applies to students attending the same school.
With no clear definition of sexual misconduct, this brings up many questions. Who is allowed to define it? Does verbal harassment count? Does unwanted touching count? This can leave survivors confused and force them to never come forward. As a way to respond with cases of sexual misconduct, the Trump administration is allowing “informal resolution”. Informal resolution is voluntary and allows those accused of sexual misconduct to opt-out of participating in disciplinary actions towards them, meaning a student who is accused of sexual misconduct can refuse to partake in investigations. Along with that, schools are not allowed to punish the accused. Schools are banned from implementing suspensions and expulsions. A lot of pressure is placed on survivors to take action to avoid facing their assaulter. Whether it includes switching classes or in worse cases, leaving schools.
Since schools are only obligated to investigate claims if they are reported to certain officials, the likelihood of victims coming forward will be reduced. Often times students aren’t aware of who their officials are and the steps to contact them. Furthermore, in an attempt to protect their reputation, many schools won’t shed light on the violence students face on campus. Religious schools can be exempted from the requirements altogether, and they have no obligation to inform student survivors of sexual violence that they have been stripped of their Title IX protections. The new Title IX guidelines give accusers and schools more power by silencing victims of assault.
As a high school student, I strongly disagree with Betsy DeVos’s new rules. Already universities and schools do a poor job in handling sexual misconduct and with new Title IX regulations, schools’ attempts will get worse. The new rules work to benefit universities financially and allow perpetrators to get away with their heinous crimes. Victims of sexual assault or harassment should not have to leave schools or drop classes.
Title IX rules are set to go into effect in August.
Thuyu Gedi is a junior at David Douglas High School and a member at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.