By Kaitlyn Alford
Betsy DeVos, Education Secretary, has long made revising Title IX regulations a top priority in the Trump administration. On November 29, 2018, the Department of Education published regulations proposed to upend schools’ obligations under Title IX.
Some of the regulations would include increasing the standard of evidence in school hearings, reduce the amount of incidents schools are required to address, allowing for cross-examination of witnesses, and eliminating interim measures (including no contact orders, dorm or class reassignment) designed to create safe space for both the accuser and accused during hearing processes.
The publication of these proposals was followed by a comment period, during which time anyone could submit a response to the regulations. The Wick Activist Coalition (WAC) and other student organizations submitted a letter to the Department of Education in response to what they see as concerning changes based on an inaccurate perception of Title IX issues on campus.
“DeVos seems to have this idea that victims are lying about what happened to them, that survivors are making these things up, but statistically, that’s not true,” said WAC co-director Emma Chinn (C’20).
A publication from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2012) states only between two and 10 percent of all reports of sexual assault are false, the same rate as other felonies. David Lisak’s 2010 meta-study “False Allegations of Sexual Assault” found that the higher end estimates (closer to 10 percent than two) may be due to police mishandling of cases, such as filing the wrong charges, rather than deliberate misinformation provided by the victim.
Under DeVos’s proposed changes, the dropping of cases would become more prevalent. Schools would only be required the investigate the most extreme forms of sexual violence, those which completely prohibit a student from accessing their education. Under current suggested guidelines, schools are required to investigate a hostile environment “if the conduct is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program” (ED 2011 Dear Colleague Letter).
According to statistics provided from the non-profit organization Know Your IX, “34.1 percent of students who have experienced sexual assault drop out of college, higher than the overall dropout rate for college students.”
This is largely due to the fact that “an estimated 40 percent of rape victims suffer from severe emotional distress (requiring mental health treatment)” (Know Your IX). The drop out rate of assaulted students may be even higher at Sewanee, as a survey recently conducted found that 73 percent of students believe being at Sewanee is detrimental to their mental health (Let’s Talk campaign video).
Limited staffing and availability at the Wellness Center mean that students are often unable to get an appointment for weeks at a time. Chinn said she had hopes for WAC to do a fundraiser for the Wellness Center.
“It’s so important for the University to fund [CAPS] because we don’t have any access to good mental healthcare in the area,” said Chinn.
Concerns are high that decreasing the responsibility of schools to address issues of gender violence will further decrease the incentive for universities to provide mental health care for their students, even as measures such as formalizing the hearing process to resemble a criminal court case would likely lead to increased traumatization of victims.
Maybe the most concerning thing about DeVos’s changes is that they complicate an already tangled mess of policy. DeVos’s changes would allow schools to utilize mediation proceedings instead of an investigative process to address Title IX matters, to claim religious exemptions to Title IX enforcement without having to notify students or the public, and to indefinitely delay institutional investigation during the time of an ongoing civil or criminal investigation.
As is, students often don’t feel they have an understanding of how Title IX works, or should work, for them at Sewanee.
“You can’t really find this information online through the school,” said Chinn. “I used Know Your IX. But as far as Sewanee’s role goes, I know they changed the way they teach it in orientation, but most people on this campus don’t know anything about it.”
At this point in time, the changes are merely proposed and their future is uncertain. Because of this, Title IX Coordinator Dr. Sylvia Gray was unable to offer any comment on how these proposals may or may not affect Title IX at Sewanee.