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From safe schools to hostile courtrooms: How Betsy DeVos’ new Title IX regulations harm survivors

Courtesy Alissa Kono

By Alissa Kono     5/19/20 2:48pm

Content warning: This opinion contains references to sexual violence.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and concision by Thresher editors. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, Betsy DeVos, the United States Secretary of Education, announced new Title IX regulations that govern how schools handle allegations of sexual assault and harrassment. Under the guise of restoring due process, the changes harm and undermine survivors by enhancing protections for those accused of misconduct.  

The new regulations show that DeVos plans to narrow the necessary gap between campus proceedings and courtroom hearings. A few major changes include a narrowed definition of sexual harassment, higher evidenciary requirements and the allowance of direct cross examinations of both parties in Title IX hearings – standards that reflect the likeness of a legal system not designed for protecting survivors

Schools are not courtrooms for a reason. Through Title IX hearings, students can utilize disciplinary procedures through their institution without having to file criminal charges. School-led proceedings  provide options for students who would not be able to afford representation in court and, more importantly, give survivors the opportunity to hold their perpetrator accountable in a safe environment to  accommodate the trauma of experiencing sexual violence. With stricter definitions and altered standards for launching investigations, it is ultimately survivors who must shoulder the burden of navigating the new requirements if they choose to report while enduring the retraumatization of cross examination or dismissal due to tightened restrictions. Those same survivors must also face scrutiny and doubt, self-hatred and social isolation and seemingly infinite barriers to tell their story due to the stigma against survivors that predates Title IX. In the long run, these new regulations set educational institutions across the country on a dangerous path of simulating legal systems at the cost of the safety of survivors. 

DeVos’ decision to release the Title IX regulations, despite significant public pushback in response to the proposed changes in 2018 and an unprecedented pandemic, is alarming, yet not surprising. The Secretary of Education has a history of demonstrating sympathy for accused perpetrators, such as meeting with groups that advocate for the rights of accused students as well as the National Coalition for Men, a men’s rights group. Furthermore, DeVos’ family foundation has made substantial donations to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that frequently sides with students accused of rape and sponsored a lawsuit against 2011 Title IX guidelines that pushed colleges to do more about sexual misconduct allegations.  

Beyond the political implications, public awareness of Title IX regulations is more important now than ever. Institutions, including Rice, must be transparent in their implementation of new standards and how these changes affect survivors. Carelessly blurring the distinction between a courthouse and a college means silencing survivors and handing the microphone to the accused.

In response to these changes, Rice students and community members can urge the Rice administration to choose options that create the least harm for survivors by signing onto a petition and statement put forth by the Student Association and Students Transforming Rice into a Violence-Free Environment. By upholding crucial measures such as a more equitable standard of evidence, the recommendations prioritize the safety of survivors over the liability of institutions and preserve the supportive structure that distinguishes Rice procedures from that of the criminal justice system. 

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