College officials rap new Title IX regs

  • U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos AP PHOTO/ALEX BRANDON

Staff Writer
Published: 5/19/2020 12:45:48 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As colleges scramble to conclude an unprecedented remote semester, an updated set of federal regulations governing how schools can investigate sexual assault and harassment allegations has added another layer of anxiety for many students and higher education officials.

The regulations, released by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos earlier this month, have been criticized for giving greater rights to students accused of sexual misconduct while potentially discouraging survivors from reporting abuse.

Among the policies detailed in the 2,000-plus page document, some notable changes include that students who report sexual assault or harassment could be subjected to cross-examination; colleges can carry out mediations between reporting and responding parties; and that colleges are not responsible for investigating sexual misconduct that occurs off-campus.

The policies also more narrowly define what constitutes “actionable sexual harassment,” defining this harassment as “unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to education.”

“What DeVos has done is roll back protections for people who report claims, and she’s enhanced the rights of people accused and sort of elevated them to the level of the rights of criminal defendants in cases that occur in courts, which is an absurdly high level,” said Carrie Baker, a professor and chairwoman of the Study of Women and Gender program at Smith College.

This level of protection does not exist for students accused of any other type of misconduct, Baker added. While campus disciplinary decisions do not carry the same weight as criminal trials, the regulations perpetuate the idea “that men shouldn’t be questioned about their sexual misconduct towards women,” Baker said.

“Basically, it’s going to protect abusers on campus,” Baker added. “It’s going to allow people who sexually assault and abuse women to stay on campus, and that’s going to make college campuses more dangerous.”

Concerns over Devos’ changes to Title IX policies are not new: Devos withdrew Obama administration Title IX guidelines beginning in 2017, and last November, the U.S. Department of Education issued a proposal stating that colleges only need to investigate sexual assaults that occur within a school's "programs and activities,” drawing criticism from local and national college officials.

But now, many of these officials say that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic place colleges in an even more difficult situation.

“It’s been very challenging for all of us to do this work because of the global pandemic,” said Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Mount Holyoke College. 

“I think if you talk to anyone in higher education who does this work, we’re really focused on catching up on all the things we need to know,” she added, “so my first thoughts are it’s really challenging for this to be put out now.”

The college takes a very “survivor-centered” approach, Sanders-McMurtry said, and is “looking at whether the guidelines are going to be thoughtful among survivors and not creating more stress” around the reporting process.

Now, she says officials will “make sure we’re complying with the guidelines, but also make sure we continue to hold true to who we are as a community.”

“Our focus is always going to be on care and support for (students) … even if at some point the process or the adjudication of that case doesn’t actually result in any consequences,” Sanders McMurtry added.

Amy Hunter, director of equal opportunity and compliance and Title IX coordinator at Smith College, highlighted “the additional procedural regulatory burdens and the narrowing of the definition” of sexual harassment as “a couple of the most difficult aspects.”

“Our worry is of course that they’ll have a chilling effect on people coming forward,” she said. 

“Our goal is to continue to support people who come forward to report sexual violence, so we will do everything possible to support our community members,” Hunter added, “so that remains unchanged.”

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, officials have and “will always treat very seriously all allegations and complaints of violations of human rights, including sexual harassment and assault,” said campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. He said the university is “ is presently engaged in a system-wide discussion, assessment and analysis” of the new regulations.

“The changes to the regulations present an opportunity to review, evaluate and adjust our present and future TIX related policies and practices,” he wrote in an email, “as well as our non-TIX related policies and practices that address inappropriate and unacceptable behaviors that might not be covered by TIX or these new regulations.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at
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