betsy devos

New Education Department rules bolster rights of students accused of sexual misconduct

May 6, 2020
New regulations related to Title IX narrow the definition of sexual harassment

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has issued final rules for how public and private schools and colleges must address allegations of sexual misconduct,.

The New York Times reports that the rules bolster protections for accused students and faculty, but temper earlier proposals that critics felt would harm victims of assault and harassment.

The rules seek to overhaul Title IX, the 48-year-old federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in programs that receive federal funding, by infusing legal standards in disciplinary proceedings that have been left largely to schools to navigate.

The new regulations narrow the definition of sexual harassment and require colleges to hold live hearings during which alleged victims and accused perpetrators can be cross-examined to challenge their credibility.

The rules also limit the complaints that schools are obligated to investigate to only those filed through a formal process and brought to the attention of officials with the authority to take corrective action.

To find a school legally culpable for mishandling allegations, it would have to be proven “deliberately indifferent,” in carrying out mandates to provide support to victims and investigate complaints fairly.

“Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” DeVos says. “This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process.”

The final rules, which take effect in August, codify for the first time sexual assault grievance proceedings that until now were covered by Education Department guidance and recommendations.

The Obama administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011 and a supplementary document in 2014 that defined sexual harassment broadly and held schools liable for incidents they knew about or “reasonably should” have known about.

Victims rights groups said that approach shepherded in a new era of accountability at colleges, putting schools on notice that Title IX did not only address equal access to sports teams.

The Obama administration found a pattern of cover-ups and rampant mishandling of Title IX proceedings in higher education and elementary and secondary schools, and initiated high-profile investigations at schools that carried the threat of losing federal funding.

Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, vowed to fight the new rules in court.

“Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are dead set on making schools more dangerous for everyone — even during a global pandemic,” Goss Graves says. “And if this rule goes into effect, survivors will be denied their civil rights and will get the message loud and clear that there is no point in reporting assault.”

When DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidance in 2017, she said she acted, in part, to give new rules the force of law. But she also sided with conservatives and other critics who said the Obama guidelines favored accusers and gave little recourse to students accused of wrongdoing.

DeVos’s initial proposals, released in November 2018, elicited more than 120,000 public comments and prompted hundreds of meetings between Education Department officials and advocacy groups.

The final rules changed to address concerns raised by victims rights groups. The department amended provisions that would have allowed schools to ignore allegations of misconduct that occurred off-campus, and officials changed proceedings that critics argued would have re-traumatized victims.

The rules are the most concrete and wide-reaching policy measure of DeVos’s tenure. The Title IX overhaul was a priority for the White House, and President Trump has personally commended DeVos for the undertaking.

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