The Department of Education issued changes to Title IX regulations on May 6. The new regulations will impact how universities investigate and handle sexual harassment and assault cases. The Office for Civil Rights reviewed more than 120,000 public comments and surveys to finalize the revised law, called “The Final Rule.”
These changes, which give accused students more rights, include only requiring schools to investigate sexual harassment that occurred on campus, allowing for the cross-examination of both survivors and perpetrators, changing the standard for preponderance of evidence and requiring institutions to provide live hearings.
In an interview with The News-Letter, incoming Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU) Co-Director Padmini Balaji noted that many policies in The Final Rule, such as replacing the preponderance of evidence standard with the standard of clear and convincing evidence when establishing the burden of proof, are known to intimidate survivors and aid perpetrators. SARU is a student group that seeks to dismantle rape culture and support survivors of sexual violence.
“It creates a culture where sexual harassment and assault are less likely to be held accountable and people are much less likely to be held accountable for their actions,” Balaji said.
Regarding how Hopkins handles sexual assault cases in the future, Interim Assistant Vice Provost and Title IX Coordinator Linda Boyd and Interim Vice Provost for Institutional Equity Joy Gaslevic of the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) stated that the University intends to uphold its previous standards of treatment in an email to The News-Letter.
“The University remains deeply committed to continuing our efforts to prevent sexual misconduct, address reports and concerns in a timely and fair manner, and provide support and resources for those involved in sexual misconduct matters. This will not change,” they wrote. “As we unpack the 2,000+ pages in the Department of Education’s final regulations, we will keep our community informed of any changes that are required, and we will seek the input of the faculty, staff and students who serve on the Provost’s Sexual Violence Advisory Committee (SVAC), along with other university partners.”
According to SARU Co-Director Reah Vasilakopoulos, The Final Rule will negatively affect the way people view survivors.
“There’s a lot of victim blaming and misogynistic language in the rule, for anyone who has the time to go through 2,033 pages,” Vasilakopoulos said.
In an email to The News-Letter, senior Chanel Lee agreed that the changes hurt survivors.
“These revisions strip protections away from survivors and give more power to rapists and assailants,” they wrote.
However, Lee was happy with The Final Rule’s redefinition of sexual harassment.
“One adjustment that I am in favor of is that stalking, domestic violence, and dating violence are now officially classified as examples of sexual harassment,” they wrote.
Vasilakopoulos questioned the timing of the release of the new regulations.
“We expected it to come out when no one was paying attention. Apparently a national pandemic is the ultimate time when no one’s paying attention,” Vasilakopoulos said.
Balaji stressed that it may be difficult for schools to adjust to the new Title IX regulations.
“It’s going to be hard to accommodate these rules now that we’re already in such a distressing situation,” she said.
The Final Rule explicitly states that in order for universities to be held accountable for the actions of their students, the assault must have taken place either on-campus or at a school-sanctioned event. However, the law allows universities to investigate any assault that impacts their students at their discretion.
Vasilakopoulos explained what the on-campus versus off-campus distinction might mean for a school like Hopkins.
“If we’re looking at this from a Hopkins perspective, we don’t have fraternity houses, technically,” she said. “We see fraternity brothers all living together and calling it an unofficial fraternity house. Because of that, complaints over events at those houses aren’t required to be investigated.”
Balaji highlighted that the pandemic brings even further complications to this new standard.
“Especially now that we’re all living off-campus, any action that occurs at an off-campus facility or anything that isn’t coordinated by a student program or activity isn’t necessarily required to be investigated,” she said.
Vasilakopoulos expressed SARU’s demand that survivors not be overlooked amid the chaos of the pandemic.
“I also really want to recognize that we know the University is dealing with a lot right now, whether it’s a loss of income, or whether students will have a fall semester, and that all of the possible administrative and legislative details are up in the air,” she said. “Survivors and their support is up in the air as well, and we want to make sure that’s not forgotten in a time when we are experiencing a lot of change.”
The University is still deliberating how its own policies regarding sexual misconduct procedures will be impacted by the federal change in policy.
The other major component of the Title IX revisions is that the civil law now mandates universities to provide a standardized and legally-sound system for victims and the school administration to rely on, especially for reporting and investigating sexual harassment cases.
Schools are not allowed to use Title IX to deny students and faculty their First Amendment rights, including the accused. Colleges will have to provide live hearings and allow advisers to witness and cross-examine both parties involved. Schools will also have to provide equal rights of appeals for both the victim and accused parties during proceedings.
Boyd and Gaslevic voiced their disappointment in the allowance of cross-examination, about which they raised concerns in their public comments on the draft regulations, they wrote.
Similarly, Lee disapproved of the cross-examination process.
“I am highly opposed to the fact that alleged perpetrators of sexual violence and misconduct will have the right to cross-examine their accusers in live hearings, meaning that survivors would be forced to relive traumatic experiences and put themselves under scrutiny even though they are the ones who have been wronged,” they wrote. “Survivors should not have to defend themselves especially against the people who have hurt them.”
Vasilakopoulos noted that these changes will make it harder for survivors to come forward in the future.
“Unless these regulations are overturned, this is going to affect all survivors on campus, especially those who are in the middle of investigations right now,” she said. “It will make people much less likely to report officially and much less likely to receive support from the institution. It’s going to put a lot more work on student-driven resources, our Counseling Center, our Interfaith Center and all the confidential staff members on campus because people won’t feel comfortable reporting.”
According to Balaji, SARU will be working to hold the University accountable.
“This next month is going to be really key in encouraging the University to use those areas of flexibility to the advantage of supporting survivors,” she said.
For crisis support and resource connections, call SARU’s confidential 24/7 peer-run hotline at (410) 516-7887.
Ryan Aghamohammadi contributed reporting to this article.