Department of Education proposes overhaul to campus sexual misconduct rules

Meghan Nguyen

The Department of Education released a proposal Friday that would narrow the number of sexual assault cases schools must investigate and give the accused more rights.

Under the proposal, schools would investigate sexual assault and harassment only if the alleged misconduct was reported to certain campus officials and only if it occurred on campus or other areas overseen by the school. Accused students would be given the right to review all evidence brought against them and the right to cross-examine their accusers.

“This plan will not only discourage survivors from responding, it will also limit the amount that universities are held accountable,” said Tatum Zeko, president of UT’s chapter of Not On My Campus. “Assaults absolutely happen on campus and in classrooms, but taking away the ability to report to Title IX if an assault happens off campus is entirely detrimental to the campus climate. As someone who has lived off-campus all four years of college… the stories that are told to me very rarely happen on campus. They happen at parties, on Sixth street (and) trying to get home from parties.”

Unlike the Obama-era guidelines being replaced, the new proposal is a regulation that will be subject to public comment and, once finalized, will carry the force of law. The proposal would regulate Title IX, a law that bars sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funding. Under a new religious exemption, schools can also opt out of Title IX enforcement entirely without notifying the Department of Education.

“The university is reviewing the Department of Education's newly proposed rules and will communicate further with the UT Austin community when we have a more complete understanding of the implications for UT,” said Shilpa Bakre, UT’s Title IX communications strategist.

The proposal redefined sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.”

The regulation also states the school must have “actual knowledge” of the allegations, meaning incidents must be reported to “an official with authority to take corrective action,” including the school’s Title IX coordinator.

Jess Davidson, executive director of End Rape on Campus, said DeVos’ proposed regulations would significantly diminish protections for sexual assault survivors.

“The bottom line is that this regulation… will return schools back to a time where sexual assault is swept under the rug,” Davidson said. “This is going to drastically limit sexual assault survivors’ ability to get help, since college students will have to go to a high-ranking university official such as a Title IX Coordinator or the Dean Of Students rather than going to someone that they trust, such as a mentor or a coach.”

Sage Carson, manager of political advocacy group Know Your IX, said students, survivors and advocates around that nation have an opportunity to fight DeVos’ proposal because it does not yet have the force of law.

“Before the proposed rule becomes law, students and allies can submit comments through our website,” Carson said. “These comments will go to the Department of Education, which has an obligation to respond to all comments. It is extremely essential that students and survivors engage in this notice-and-comment process, and also show wide outrage at the continuous attacks on Title IX.”