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Campus safety is more than dealing with COVID-19

Campus safety is more than dealing with COVID-19
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Colleges and universities across the nation continue to grapple with the impact of COVID-19. Some have reopened campuses with safety precautions, while others will continue to host virtual classes. 

As public policy makers and administrators weigh the options for keeping their students safe from the COVID-19 virus, there is another aspect of student safety that needs to be addressed — how to protect survivors of sexual assault under the new Title IX ruling issued by Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump creates federal council on global tree planting initiative | Green group pushes for answers on delayed climate report | Carbon dioxide emissions may not surpass 2019 levels until 2027: analysis Trump creates federal government council on global tree planting initiative Private schools prove reopening learning institutions safely can be done MORE and the Department of Education. 

In May 2020, the Department of Education announced new Title IX rules that roll back Obama-era guidance and implement court-like procedures for sexual violence investigations college campuses. These rules took effect in August, but multiple lawsuits have been filed to try and revert the announced changes. For many, it could be easy to be convinced that the changes to Title IX lead to a “more just” and “fair” campus, but the reality is that these changes will lead to a system that is inequitable for survivors needing to heal.

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In 2017, Devos and the Department of Education announced their intention to repeal previous Title IX guidance with the reasoning that there were “many” cases of students being accused of sexual assault and they needed to “restore due process” as a result. In response, Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER), a non-profit organization designed to empower students to address sexual violence on their campuses and where I serve as board chair, tested the department’s theory. Using all publicly available sexual misconduct information from 50 universities, SAFER determined that while over 15 percent of students reported experiencing sexual violence, only 0.11 percent students actually end up being accused of sexual violence in college. An even smaller number end up being sanctioned for sexual violence. This reveals the lack of evidence base behind the Department of Education’s Title IX overhaul decision, and yields particular concern for the negative survivor consequences that will occur as a result of this misguided guidance.  

Title IX requires schools to have policies in place prohibiting sexual assault and harassment. Under these guidelines, universities must have a dedicated Title IX coordinator and must provide a clear process for how investigations will take place when an assault is reported. When a report is filed by a survivor, the school must conduct an impartial investigation and inform the survivor in writing of the final verdict. 

Until late this summer, these verdicts were determined using a preponderance of the evidence standard, which meant that it must be more likely than not that the assault happened. However, the Trump administration’s change to Title IX shifted the burden of proof to one in which the evidence must be “clear and convincing,” making it significantly harder for survivors to get the justice they deserve.  

The new changes to the Title IX rules also make dramatic changes to the investigation process, some of which limit the options that had been in place to protect survivors. The immediate effect is that schools are allowed to forgo some of the steps that are necessary to ensure that the perpetrator and survivor do not run into one another around campus as the investigation unfolds.

The way the Title IX process plays out when someone experiences sexual violence must depend on the educational and personal needs of the survivor. Options to receive confidential help and counseling, community resources for evidence collection, perpetrator dorm or class relocation, or to engage in a formal complaint process are available depending on survivor desires. Importantly, throughout the formal investigation, the survivor and perpetrator would never come face-to-face. This is to prevent further trauma to the survivor and to make the reporting process more accessible to those who choose to engage in it.

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Nothing about this process is ever going to be easy, but under the Obama era Title IX rules, survivors had the reassurance that their needs were a priority and that the system started by believing them, rather than starting with skepticism and doubt. 

Under the new guidance, much of that trust between survivors and the schools that were meant to protect them gets lost. Definitions of sexual harassment and sexual assault are changed to be more narrow and thus result in likely fewer instances that qualify for formal investigations. For example, universities are no longer able to investigate situations that occur within off-campus housing or during study abroad. These procedural changes, among others, put the accused perpetrator at the center and even allow the accused student to directly question the survivor, leading to the potential for retraumatization and further harm. 

It seems DeVos has a clear motivation in these updated guidelines to deny survivors the justice and healing they deserve. Her propaganda about “due process” is really a way to place burden, doubt and blame on the survivor, requiring evidence that goes far beyond preponderance of the evidence and into “without a reasonable doubt.” It is unrealistic to expect college students navigating classes, schoolwork, exams and deadlines, while trying to heal from a traumatic event, to pursue this process under the new guidelines that require them to defend themselves in a makeshift courtroom that assumes innocence of their perpetrator. As a result, many survivors may choose not to undergo the process all together, denying their abilities to get the accommodations they need to recover and focus on their education.

This is not what Title IX was meant to do when it charged schools with the task of protecting students from sex- and gender-based discrimination. This is not what administrators who care about the wellbeing of students should be forced to implement as a way of protecting perpetrators. This is not what we should expect from the highest government official tasked with making education equitable, accessible and safe. This guidance needs to be reversed.

Danielle Christenson is the board chair of SAFER, a non-profit, research and advocacy organization that empowers student movements to combat sexual violence on college campuses.