Students, university react to Title IX rollbacks

Title IX Graphic

Alex Kamczyc

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced changes Sept. 22 to the federal guidelines implemented by the Obama administration called “Dear Colleague,” which dictated how college campuses handled sexual assault cases.

Specifically, DeVos plans to change the standard of evidence needed to proceed with disciplinary action against students accused of rape, the timeline under which universities are expected to operate and requirement of schools to provide mediation to resolve cases.

DeVos’ announcement affects students, men and women alike who attend colleges across America, including Kent State. While some are in favor of DeVos’ decision, some students at Kent State don’t think these changes are for the good.

“I don’t think it’s constructive,” said Anthony Erhardt, a senior paralegal studies major and a member of the College Democrats. “I’m worried that it’s going to prevent and also discourage victims of sexual assault and people who feel that the school should take action from reporting these incidents.”

The Department of Education released a Q&A along with the announcement of the changes to the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter. The new rules will be in place temporarily while the department gathers comments from interest groups and the public in order to adjust guidelines.

Originally, the standard needed was called a “preponderance of evidence,” which means it was more likely than not sexual violence or assault occurred.

The new, higher standard, called “clear and convincing evidence,” means there needs to be evidence that leaves a firm belief or conviction that it is highly probable the accused has committed a sexual crime.

“A lot of times in these rape cases there’s not a lot of physical evidence,” Erhardt said. “What you’re going off of is testimony and the narrative that is being provided by the parties involved. It’s going to make it harder for these victims and even for those accused to argue their side of the case.”

Another important guideline that has been removed is the suggested timeline in which universities should conduct an investigation, which was 60 days.

“Universities have a history of consciously dragging out (sexual assault) cases so that an alleged assailant can graduate or an accused student athlete can play a big game,” said Mara Cash, a junior psychology major and the president of KSU Feminist Club. “These kinds of things are so time sensitive. It’s a miracle that people come forward to begin with and to drag it out is terrible. It shows the lack of justice.”

The change also states if both parties consent, they are allowed an informal resolution such as mediation. Previously prohibited under Title IX, this puts new pressure on victims to meet with their perpetrator face to face, something which is no small task.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Mehdi Haghighi, a graduate appointee who teaches comparative politics at Kent State. “Most of the people that have been victimized don’t want to face their perpetrator. Just telling them that there’s a prospect of the possibility that they might have to be in the same room with their perpetrator will discourage some of those people from coming forward and filing a legal complaint.”

DeVos announced these changes to Title IX as an effort to reform the Obama-era guidelines critics believe are too harsh on the accused. In a speech given at George Mason University’s Arlington, Virginia, campus Sept. 7, Devos stated:

“One rape is one too many, one assault is one too many, one aggressive act of harassment is one too many, one person denied due process is one too many.”

However, some believe rolling back these guidelines actually hinders due process for everyone involved in instances of sexual assault on campus.

“In this country, according to our laws, people are innocent until proven guilty,” Haghighi said. “Because of this deep-rooted tradition that we have, we should leave that up to the judicial system to make that decision. What she’s doing is intervening in the function of our legal process.”

The other notion is these rollbacks will filter out false claims that may put the accused at risk for punishment for crimes they were not part of.

“I think it is important for those that have been falsely accused have due process,” Cash said. “But statistically, that’s not really commonplace.”

Cash is referring to statistics that show only between 2 percent and 10 percent of sexual assault accusations are false. These numbers were found through research conducted by David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah Nicksa and Ashley Cote and published through SAGE Publishing.

Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in America and on campuses. One in five women are survivors of rape or attempted rape, and nine out of 10 times sexual assaults on college women are committed by someone they know, according to information provided by Kent State’s Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services.

In response to inquiries about DeVos’ change in policy, Kent State released the following statement:

“The safety and well-being of our students is our number one priority at Kent State University. We will continue to be responsive to all sexual harassment, sexual assault, intimate partner violence or stalking reports and continue to follow current University policies while the U.S. Department of Education considers policy changes. Kent State has made a priority the continued efforts to raise awareness, amplify educational programs and expand support services in regards to sexual assault and awareness.”

Furthermore, about three-fourths of sexual assault happen when alcohol is involved and 60 percent of all sexual assaults are never reported to police.

“Using Title IX to combat sexual assault is imperative,” Cash said. “I’m terrified that without Title IX, that sense of justice, that sense that people care, is really going to disappear.”

At Kent State alone, reports of sexual assault crimes tripled between 2015 and 2016, from six reports to 18.

Reports of stalking have also risen, with only five reports in 2015 and 11 in 2016.

While these rollbacks are just a small notch in the list of things the Trump administration has done to reverse what the Obama administration has done, some believe that’s a clear sign its priorities are for the good of all.

“It really ingrains the belief, whether the Trump administration intended to or not, that sexual assault is not something that is a priority to them,” Erhardt said. “We’re going to continue to ingrain that women who are victims of this, they’re not going to be taken serious.”

The Department of Education did not say how long the interim rule is expected to be in effect. Clare McCann, a higher education expert at the think tank New America, said it will likely take the department more than one year to finalize a new rule.

Contact Alex Kamcyzc at akamcz[email protected]. The Associated Press contributed to this reporting.