Universities across the country are reviewing Trump administration proposed changes to rules governing how the institutions handle sexual assault and harassment cases, under Federal Title IX law. Universities deal with cases through administrative processes that can result in punishments, including job loss and expulsion.
According to a U.S. Department of Education fact sheet, the proposed regulations rolled out last month by Secretary of Education Betsy Devos seek to ensure schools understand their legal obligations.
Kara Carlson is the University of Alaska Fairbanks advocacy program coordinator. Carlson works for the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, which contracts with UAF to provide victim support. She says the federal Title IX change proposal is aimed at ensuring due process for all parties, but instead re-tilts the playing field.
”While the pendulum may have been more towards the victim’s rights, it’s now shifting more towards the respondent’s rights,” Carlson said.
Carlson lists numerous concerns including narrowing of the scope of cases universities are required to address, limiting them to incidents which occur on campus, or elsewhere within school programs or activities.
“That doesn’t include incidents that happen at a residence, if the residence is off-campus, or in the community if something happens,” Carlson said. “And oftentimes, these incidences impact individuals both on- and off-campus.”
Carlson also points to a definition of sexual harassment, which sets the bar higher.
”It says severe, pervasive and objectively offensive,” Carlson said. “And many of the folks we’re working with, their complaints under the new proposed regulations wouldn’t even be able to be investigated.”
The proposed regulations mandate that the accused is presumed innocent, has the opportunity to cross-examine the alleged victim at a live hearing, and they give universities the leeway to apply a higher burden of proof in adjudicating cases.
Carlson says the regulations could “potentially impact how people choose to report, or if they choose to report.”
Other proposed changes tweak the system through which cases are handled, banning the current single investigator model UA uses, and making it more court-like.
”Should a victim really need to be represented by an attorney, and the process of filing a complaint, and would a victim even want to go through that process,” Carlson said.
University of Alaska officials are not yet ready to comment on the proposed changes. Found to have mishandled sexual assault cases in the past, UA is currently working to fulfill an agreement with the Federal Office of Civil Rights to improve its sex offense prevention, response and adjudication programs. UA spokeswoman Robbie Graham says a broad based effort to understand and comment on the proposed changes began immediately after they came out in November.
“Doing an overall evaluation with the deeper dive continuing into the new year,” Graham said. “We need to be very methodical and take our time in looking at this.”
University of Alaska Fairbanks Title IX coordinator Margot Griffith highlights the challenge of applying regulatory language to the sensitive topic.
”You combine emotion and compliance, and there’s an explosion.”
Griffith, Graham and Carlson all emphasize the importance of commenting on the proposed Title IX regulations. The US Department of Education is accepting input through Jan. 28.