The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault (the Alliance) and the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NYSCASA) are alarmed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s directive to review guidance that protects students’ rights.
This review process, called notice-and-comment, is directed at a 2011 guidance called the Dear Colleague Letter (DCL). The DCL prioritized and re-stated the obligation of institutions of education to commit to non-discrimination in their policies and practices on college campuses. It specifically laid out duties with regard to sexual harassment and violence under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The DCL did not add requirements to the applicable law but provided guidance to policies that had long been in place at the Department of Education under both Democratic and Republican presidencies. The DCL reaffirmed the following Title IX requirements: the designation of Title IX coordinators in all institutions of education; prompt and equitable grievance procedures for complaining and accused students; training for staff, as well as education and prevention for students; and finally, remedies for findings of discrimination. The DCL requires a transparent and enforceable method of providing non-discriminatory education in the U.S.
Under this current administration, transparency and accountability measures for universities have already been rolled back. Recently, the Department of Education discontinued an Office of Civil Rights directive issued under President Obama that required a review of three years’ worth of Title IX complaints upon the filing of an individual Title IX complaint. This directive enabled the office to investigate and identify systemic injustices on campus. The Alliance has addressed concerns over this rollback in an Op-Ed in the Hechinger Report. The Alliance and NYSCASA are looking at legislative measures to protect New York State students under state law.
In addition to this rollback, the Department of Education held a series of roundtables earlier this summer. Due to the scheduling of these roundtables, the Department of Education seemed to heavily weight the concerns of those who oppose the application of Title IX to the campus context. DeVos’s comments and examples used today downplayed the recent successes in fair adjudication of sexual violence cases on campus and lay the stage for further rollbacks of student protections. DeVos’s continual reference to wrongfully accused students as victims dishonors student victims and survivors who bravely reported their victimization. We also vehemently challenge DeVos’s understanding of sexual harassment. We do not believe that “if everything is harassment, nothing is harassment,” and we will stand with victims against such tone deaf remarks.
We believe it is imperative that the notice-and-comment review be conducted in a fashion that allows for the inclusion of the lived expertise of survivors, advocates and legal experts in the field. Just as the DCL demanded transparency and accountability of universities, we ask the same of any potential Title IX changes made by the Department of Education.