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Campus activists blast proposed Title IX changes

January 16, 2019

HARTFORD — Advocates and campus administrators from across Connecticut expressed fears that proposed changes to a landmark civil rights law may reverse years of work done to prevent sexual violence on college campuses.

Since U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released her proposed changes to Title IX regulations in November, many working on the front lines to help victims of sexual and gendered violence have been worried about changes in the way they operate. The policy sea change has also created confusion among students and survivors, advocates say.

“We’ve gotten about 600 phone calls from students saying they are really scared about what this means for them,” said Michelle Carroll, associate director of external programming at End Rape on Campus.

The proposal from DeVos prompted the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence to host its second Campus Sexual Assault Prevention Conference, which was held Tuesday at the University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford. The event also offered experts opportunities to discuss public health approaches to preventing violence as well as how to create supportive healing environments and how to teach enthusiastic consent, and more. About 120 people attended, according to organizers.

Title IX was created to stop gender-based discrimination on college campuses. The changes would grant students accused of sexual misconduct more protections, and the definition of sexual harassment at colleges would be narrower.

“We thought that once those proposed regulations came out ... it was perfect timing for us to have the conversation and for folks to be able to share some of their concerns and what some of their success are,” said Beth Hamilton, associate director of the Connecticut Alliance to Prevent Sexual Violence.

Because Connecticut is a state with legislation that overlaps with Title IX, it is unclear what the “outcomes are going to be in terms of federal requirements in alignment with our state requirements,” Hamilton added.

Title IX uncertainties

The new, more narrow definition of sexual harassment laid out in DeVos’ proposed changes to Title IX is a cause for concern, Carroll said.

The proposed change defines sexual harassmanet as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program,” she said.

“They don’t explain how to define what severe, pervasive and objectively offensive,” said Carroll. “When we have a higher threshold, it will decrease the number of cases that get investigated. More students will experience more harassment before a school can get involved.”

Because the new regulations wouldn’t hold institutions responsible for addressing off-campus sexual violence, Carroll said she worries this will affect K-12 students the most— a population that already has few resources for reporting such incidents.

“I think about how this particular change really sends a message to students that there are only certain times when the things that have happened to you matter,” she said.

The proposed requirement for cross-examination during hearings would keep victims from putting themselves through the reporting process, said Carroll.

Not only would this regulation allow an accuser’s sexual history to be brought into evidence, the DeVos document says cross-examination would “allow the accuser to identify the inconsistencies in the other side’s story [and] gives the fact-finder an opportunity to assess a witness’ demeanor and determine who can be trusted.”

“This is one of the most important rhetoric changes in the new regulations,” Carroll said. “This shows that this new administration really believes that victims are lying.”

Also, the religious exemptions laid out in the proposed changes would put LGBTQ populations at more risk, the advocate said.

If a student reports a same-sex assault, the school could kick the student out of the institution and refuse to do an investigation into the accusations, said Carroll. The same could apply to a student disclosing premarital sex or the use of birth control when they report an assault, she said.

“They can use the exemption for any part of the story that goes against institution’s religion and way they understand it,” she said.

The other negative outcome — which Carroll has already seen — is the confusion it has caused for educators and campus staff.

“One coordinator I met talked about a five-year-long campaign to teach professors how to respond in a trauma-informed way,” she said. “And now she’s worried that all that work will go out the window.”

Possible solutions discussed by participants included having colleges establish their own parallel processes and collaborate with local law enforcement, which could be solutions. But Carroll said the future of Title IX remains uncertain.

“The scariest aspect of this is that institutions do not have to be transparent,” she said. “It’s not fair, it’s not equitable, it’s not offering students a place in the process and it instills fear.”

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