NORTHAMPTON – As universities scramble to end an unprecedented remote semester, a series of updated federal regulations governing how schools can investigate allegations of sexual harassment and harassment have added a layer of anxiety to many students and higher education officials.
The regulation, issued by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this month, has been criticized for giving greater rights to students accused of sexual violations while potentially preventing survivors from reporting abuse.
Among the policies detailed on the 2,000-plus page document, some important changes include that students who report sexual assault or abuse may be subject to cross-examination; universities can mediate between those who report and respond; and universities are not responsible for investigating sexual violations that occur outside of campus.
These policies also narrowly define what is referred to as “actionable sexual harassment,” defining this harassment as “unwanted behavior that is so severe, pervasive, and offensive objectively that it effectively denies a person’s equal access to education. “
“What DeVos has done is to restore protection for those who report claims, and he has increased the rights of the accused and sort of elevated him to the level of the rights of criminal defendants in cases that occur in court, which is an absurdly high level very high, “said Carrie Baker, a professor and chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Smith College.
This level of protection does not exist for students who are accused of making any kind of mistakes, Baker added. While campus disciplinary decisions do not have the same weight as criminal courts, the rules perpetuate the idea “that men don’t need to be questioned about their sexual behavior towards women,” Baker said.
“Basically, this will protect the perpetrators of violence on campus,” Baker added. “This will allow people who sexually abuse and harass women to live on campus, and that will make campus campuses more dangerous.”
Concern over Devos’ changes to Title IX policy is not new: Devos withdrew Obama’s administration of Title IX administration starting in 2017, and last November, the US Department of Education issued a proposal stating that universities only need to investigate sexual assaults that occur within schools. “programs and activities,” drew criticism from local and national tertiary officials.
But now, many of these officials say that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic put universities in an even more difficult situation.
“It’s very challenging for all of us to do this work because of the global pandemic,” said Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Mount Holyoke College.
“I think if you talk to anyone in higher education who does this work, we are really focused on pursuing all the things we need to know,” he added, “so my first thought was very challenging to get out now.”
The college took a very “centered on survivors” approach, said Sanders-McMurtry, and was “seeing whether the guidelines would be of concern among the survivors and not create more pressure” around the reporting process.
Now, he said officials would “make sure we comply with the guidelines, but also ensure we continue to cling to who we are as a community.”
“Our focus will always be on care and support for (students) … even if at some point the process or adjudication of the case does not really produce consequences,” added Sanders McMurtry.
Amy Hunter, director of equality of opportunity and compliance and coordinator of Title IX at Smith College, highlighted “the additional burden of procedural rules and the narrowing of the definition of” sexual harassment as “some of the most difficult aspects.”
“Our concern is of course that they will have a cold effect on people who come forward,” he said.
“Our goal is to continue to support those who progress to report sexual violence, so we will do everything possible to support members of our community,” Hunter added, “so that it remains unchanged.”
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, officials have and will always take very seriously all allegations and complaints of human rights violations, including sexual harassment and assault, said campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. He said the university “is currently involved in discussions, assessments and analysis of the entire system” of the new regulations.
“Changes to these regulations provide opportunities to review, evaluate and adjust policies and practices related to our current and future TIX,” he wrote in an e-mail, “as well as our policies and practices related to non-TIX that discuss inappropriate and inappropriate behavior. acceptable. which may not be covered by TIX or this new regulation. “
Jacquelyn Voghel can be contacted at [email protected]