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Those who experience sexual assault at college could have a harder time getting assistance from their universities in the future.

Recent updates were made to federal Title IX rules that’ll negatively affect students across America — except those who’ve been accused of sexual harassment or assault. All universities that receive federal funding are currently updating their student handbooks with new changes, and there’ll be serious consequences for those who experience sexual assault after these revisions officially go into effect.

On May 6, 2020, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released new Title IX changes that were accepted by all federally funded schools by Aug.14. The collection of policy changes, known as the “Final Rule,” include updated regulations that state how public schools will handle cases of sexual assault, abuse and harassment under federal law.

One major update to the Title IX process is that schools are no longer required to investigate off-campus incidents. According toknowyourix.org, “schools must dismiss any complaints of sexual misconduct that occur outside of campus-controlled buildings and/or educational activities.” If someone’s assaulted at an off-campus apartment, universities are no longer federally obligated to continue the case. Study abroad cases will no longer be covered because those cases aren’t considered to have happened in campus-controlled buildings. 

Because off-campus incidents will no longer be within JMU’s jurisdiction, reported cases will go to the Harrisonburg Police Department. According to rainn.org, 3 out of 4 cases aren’t reported to authorities due to fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, worry about whether the police would actually do something or other similar reasons. Cases that involve students who experience sexual violence at an off-campus location are no longer under the school’s jurisdiction, and this is now backed by federal law. Why is the federal government trying to roll back protections for those who experience sexual assault?

In the new Title IX policies, the definition of sexual harassment has been narrowed to include only instances that are “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” This will limit cases to incidents that comply with this definition, and something that’s severe in the eyes of one person may not be considered that way by others. This will further narrow what’s considered sexual harassment and lower protections for survivors.

So, what’s JMU doing about this? The new policy updates give universities some leeway to implement their own code of conduct to handle cases. Administrators and lawyers are currently working on what JMU can still do to protect those who experience sexual assault to the highest degree while also following the new federal rules. After contacting the Title IX office, which referred me to a director of OSARP, I received this response via email: “...the university, including OSARP, is still working on the process, policy and procedures that will be used for sexual misconduct that falls outside of the Title IX policy.” 

Universities have a record of excusing perpetrators far too often. Most students want to believe that schools will act in students’ best interest and protect those who experience sexual assault, but by restricting cases to instances that occur on campus, schools won’t be held responsible for students’ actions simply because of the location of cases. The fewer Title IX cases that JMU handles ultimately lead to less resources needed to handle Title IX, which may equate to a financial gain for JMU as they can reap the benefits of no longer being on the hook to handle these incidents.

Students won’t know JMU’s specific implementation of the Final Rule until the new policies have been released by OSARP. The Title IX office assured me that all cases involving JMU students, both off and on campus, are being investigated as of Aug. 26, 2020. After the new policies and procedures are outlined by OSARP, those same protections may drastically change.

It’s up to the JMU administration to do what’s right and protect its students to the fullest extent possible while remaining legally protected by federal guidelines. History shows that just because something’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right, which leads us to the ultimate question: Will the JMU administration act in its own financial or legal interest and fully comply with federal law, or will it be on the right side of history and protect those who experience sexual assault? 

Jenna Horrall is a senior computer science major and sociology minor. Contact Jenna at horraljk@dukes.jmu.edu.