Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released new regulations governing K-12 and collegiate schools’ responses to sexual misconduct that “restore due process in campus proceedings to ensure all students can pursue an education free from sex discrimination.”
There’s since been wide dissent about the regulations’ actual equality.
JMU hasn’t made any staff members available to comment on the new policies. Caitlyn Read, JMU director of communications and university spokesperson, said it’s too early for individuals involved in the implementation of the new regulations to be able to offer concrete answers.
“We’re like everybody else in the country,” Read said. “We just got these regulations last week, so we are working to interpret them.”
Among the major changes in new protocols are policies re-defining Title IX jurisdiction to only include “when sexual misconduct occurs in the school’s education program or activity, against a person in the United States,” according to a document released by the Department of Education summarizing the new regulations.
The language used in the 2,000-page document excludes sexual misconduct that occurs outside of areas where the school exercises “substantial control,” such as off-campus housing, and on study abroad programs outside of the U.S.
Kinsey Watson, a senior writing, rhetoric and technical communication major, is a member of Students Against Sexual Violence, an organization at JMU that has taken to social media to show its support for wider efforts to push back against the regulations. She’s been vocal about the new regulations because of her past experiences with Title IX.
“I was raped on my study abroad, so then I couldn’t have gone through Title IX, which is horrible,” Watson said. “You’re already in a foreign country. You don’t really know what to do, so now you can’t rely on your university — [that’s] horrible.”
The regulations clearly state that instances of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking automatically warrant an investigation when they occur within a Title IX office’s jurisdiction, strengthening existing rules around those actions.
However, according to the Department of Education summary document, sexual harassment has been redefined as action “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies equal educational access” as judged by a “reasonable person,” in alignment with the standard established by the Supreme Court in the Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education 1999 case.
Additionally, Title IX offices are required to dismiss complaints of sexual harassment in which the reported actions don’t meet the Davis standard.
The redefinition has been heavily condemned among survivor advocacy communities, like Know Your IX and the organization End Rape on Campus, for potentially excluding a large amount of incidents from investigation by an institution’s Title IX office, possibly including initially minor actions that precede larger acts of harassment or assault.
“It’s all still in the path of, like, sexual violence, and they all should be heard,” Watson said.
In response to widespread criticism, the Department of Education wrote:
“The Department understands that research shows that even ‘less severe’ forms of sexual harassment may cause negative outcomes for those who experience it. The Department believes, however, that severity and pervasiveness are needed elements to ensure that Title IX’s non-discrimination mandate does not punish verbal conduct in a manner that chills and restricts speech and academic freedom, and that recipients are not held responsible for controlling every stray, offensive remark that passes between members of the recipient’s community.”
While Title IX offices’ jurisdiction has been reduced, schools may still choose to respond to instances of sexual harassment against students that don’t meet the Davis standard. However, it must be done in a manner outside of a Title IX investigation, according to the regulation summary released by the Department of Education.
“A lot of what is now being mandated by the force of law is already very much in practice at JMU, so there will be changes to our policies … but there’s a lot of things we’re already doing that go above and beyond the existing policies,” Read said.
The regulations also change the requirements for mandatory reporting in collegiate institutions, majorly shifting the landscape of what counts as an official report. Professors, coaches, resident advisors and other individuals that were previously identified as mandatory reporters are no longer required to hold that status.
Under the new policy, it’s left to each institution to determine which employees outside of the Title IX coordinator will be classified as “officials with authority,” or mandatory reporters, a policy that Erin Coogan, a JMU alumna (’20), said “breeds secrecy and oppression of these harmful things to students that professors have a responsibility to tell someone [about].”
Responding to criticism alleging that a lack of mandatory reporter statuses will result in less harmful incidents being reported and investigated, the Department of Education wrote:
“The Department believes that allowing postsecondary institution recipients to decide how its employees (other than the Title IX Coordinator, and officials with authority) respond to notice of sexual harassment appropriately respects the autonomy of postsecondary students to choose to disclose sexual harassment to employees for the purpose of triggering the postsecondary institution’s Title IX response obligations, or for another purpose (for example, receiving emotional support without desiring to “officially” report).”
It’s yet to be announced how JMU plans to handle mandatory reporting, and as the regulations only require investigations of formal complaints brought to the Title IX coordinator, that will be a large factor in determining the caseload JMU’s Title IX office is required to handle.
Among other policies written into the regulations that have faced widespread public criticism are a requirement of live cross-examination at hearings — which organizations such as Know Your IX, a survivors’ rights group, and the National Women’s Law Center have argued will only serve to re-traumatize survivors — and the removal of the 60-day time limit on Title IX cases, now leaving institutions to act within a self-determined “reasonably prompt time frame,” a policy Watson said will allow schools to push off action indefinitely.
“I just know so many other people, like, it just took so long for such unnecessary reasons,” Watson said. “But, at least they had this time limit that we could fight back on, and we had that cushion, so like, it’s like the cushion’s gone, and we can’t fight back if we don’t like it.”
Many organizations — including SASV — have decried the regulations, public re-sharing social media posts arguing that the policies are putting undue stress on survivors instead of making the process equal for both parties.
The day the regulations were announced, SASV retweeted a tweet made by Know Your IX, saying, “Betsy DeVos just released her new Title IX rule, and it’s bad. If this rule goes into effect, it will make schools more dangerous and could push survivors out of school entirely.”
“It just feels like a slap in the face to all survivors right now,” Abigail Culverhouse, a senior biology major and member of SASV, said.
Watson said she believes the new policies are further detracting from what could’ve been an empowering and safe entity for survivors and that “the 50/50 is a joke.”
“I don’t know anyone who sees Title IX as this great thing, personally, you know?” Watson said. It’s just, like, kind of sad that none of us are like, ‘Oh, yeah, Title IX’s good,’ and now it’s just getting further away from what it was originally intended to be.”
Culverhouse, a member of SASV, said that after looking at many of the new policies, she’s now unsure of whether JMU’s Title IX office will remain to be a helpful place for survivors to turn to.
“If it came to it, and someone came to me and said, ‘This happened to me. What are my best options,’ With this new Title IX, I don’t feel like that is their best option,” Culverhouse said.
The discretion allowed to individual institutions in many facets of the regulations have left several decisions up to JMU to determine how it will choose to interpret and implement the policies, yet the school hasn’t announced any official plans for implementation.
Echoing Culverhouse, many organizations and individuals have taken to social media to call upon higher education institutions to publicly announce how they plan to handle implementation of the regulations in a way that maintains a students-first approach.
“I am hoping that students can rally around the parts that give us a little bit of a glimmer of hope,” Coogan said.
Read said the university is planning to release a public statement regarding the new policies, but she was unable to provide The Breeze with a timeframe within which to expect that announcement.
“We recognize that this is huge,” Read said. “We also want to make sure that people understand that we will just continue to use these regulations as a baseline like we always have … As a federally funded institution and an institution that receives federal money, we’ve adhered to Title IX for a long, long time, and so, we will continue to go above and beyond.”
Though the regulations require compliance by all federally funded K-12 and postsecondary educational institutions by Aug. 14, many organizations and individuals including Know Your IX, It’s On Us — a national organization focused on preventing collegiate sexual assault — JMU’s SASV and several U.S. congresspersons have announced that they’ll protest the new measures through the summer and into the following months past the compliance deadline in an attempt to push back on policies Watson said make the Title IX office “more unappealing now than it was before.”
“We want JMU to be a safe place for survivors,” Culverhouse said. “We want JMU to be a place that believes survivors and does everything that we can to ensure their safety and their education.”
Contact Jake Conley at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.