The Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU) held a virtual event titled “Change in IX” on Thursday, April 30 over Zoom. The workshop explored the Department of Education’s (DOE’s) proposed changes to Title IX, as well as the current state of the law amid the pandemic.
SARU, a student-run group that aims to dismantle rape culture and support survivors of sexual violence, partnered with two guest speakers, Naida Henao and Ruth Perrin. Henao and Perrin are staff members at the Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. (NVRDC), a nonprofit that provides survivors of all crimes with free legal and advocacy services.
Henao and Perrin began with an explanation of Title IX. Passed in 1972, Title IX outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal funding. The DOE enforces Title IX through guidance documents, which specify what constitutes sex discrimination.
In 2011 and 2014, the Obama administration issued notable guidelines that directly underlined schools’ responsibilities regarding sexual violence. However, the Department of Education rescinded these guidelines in 2017 and issued new ones in 2018.
It is unclear as to when these regulations will take effect and how they may be modified. Such ambiguity, according to Henao and Perrin, threatens to leave schools ill-prepared for meeting their requirements.
Seniors and SARU Co-Directors Deeya Bhattacharya and Reah Vasilakopoulos hoped that participants would arrive at a better understanding of their rights and the potential impact of these changes on sexual misconduct investigations.
Vasilakopoulos emphasized the importance of informing students about Title IX, as well as any proposed amendments to it.
“Title IX is a guideline for the rights you have as a student at our university,“ she said. “Being able to know the rights you have and what you might need to advocate for, that distinction is really important.”
Henao detailed the key takeaways of the proposed changes. While the new guidelines maintain prior definitions of quid pro quo harassment and sexual assault, they establish that all other forms of sexual harassment are defined as “conduct that is severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.”
This stands in contrast to a significantly more inclusive definition under the Obama era, which was “unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
Given this shift to a more stringent standard, Henao underscored the need to recognize survivors.
“This may have a chilling effect on reports of sexual harassment on campus,” she said.
The proposed guidelines also weaken schools’ accountability regarding sexual misconduct investigations. In particular, a school must be “deliberately indifferent” to an allegation for the Department of Education to consider it legally at fault.
Another major change concerns the process schools must implement in order to handle sexual misconduct cases. Currently, they address cases through a hearing panel or a single investigator model. When a school utilizes hearing panels, survivors often have to tell their stories repeatedly. However, in the latter, an investigator compiles findings from interviews of the complainant, respondent, witnesses and other evidence into a report.
An increasing number of schools have adopted the single investigator model because it is more survivor-friendly. With the new guidelines, schools would have to assume a hearing panel model and cross-examine the complainant and respondent.
Perrin explained that this could make investigations discouraging for survivors.
“This increases the adversarial nature of the proceeding,” she said.
Finally, while the Obama-era guidelines established that schools use the “preponderance of evidence” standard in cases, the new guidelines permit schools to choose to use the “clear and convincing evidence” standard. “Clear and convincing evidence” requires stronger proof than the “preponderance of evidence” standard.
However, what qualifies as “clear and convincing evidence” is ambiguous and would be up to each hearing panel to decide, potentially leading to inconsistency in the outcomes for similar cases.
Junior Sonomi Oyagi, who attended the event, reacted to the guidelines in an email to The News-Letter.
“The changes make me angry and frustrated because I believe universities should be fostering environments in which students are safe and feel comfortable reporting violations, and these changes undermine that responsibility,” she wrote.
In addition to discussing the changes to Title IX, Henao and Perrin highlighted opportunities for college students to push their universities support survivors. For example, the new guidelines require schools to investigate anything connected to a “program or activity.” However, regarding cases off-campus and on study abroad programs, schools would be able to individually decide whether to conduct an investigation.
Henao and Perrin concluded their presentation by affirming that the legal obligations of schools remain the same. Web platforms such as Zoom and WebX, they said, are being used to conduct hearings and investigations.
Henao further explained that her own organization was committed to supporting survivors in any way possible.
“We believe in survivor defined justice,” she said. “That includes when our clients tell us, ‘Hey, I’ve been through this and I don’t want to go through the Title IX process; what options do I have?’“
In an interview with The News-Letter, junior and incoming SARU Co-Director Padmini Balaji stressed the importance of the event in clarifying the regulations.
“It was helpful that they specifically highlighted certain sections of Title IX within the proposed regulations that have a little more leeway... that students can really advocate to push the ceiling higher in order for the University to maintain rights for survivors,” she said.
Vasilakopoulos elaborated upon how these changes will influence SARU’s activities.
“Once they actually drop, that will bring a new lens to our activity,” she said. “We’re really going to have to shift our crisis support, a lot of our workshops, a lot of our meetings, to focus on the aftermath of these changes.”
She further emphasized SARU’s support for survivors in light of the proposed changes, as well as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Right now is a really scary time for a lot of people including survivors, who are stuck in very unsafe, triggering or dangerous environments,” Vasilakopoulos said.
Bhattacharya agreed with Vasilakopoulos, noting that SARU is open to the student body to talk about these issues.
“SARU is always here, for any resources or just someone to talk to,” she said. “We’re always here for them, and they’re not alone.”
For crisis support and resource connections, call SARU’s confidential 24/7 peer-run hotline at (410) 516-7887.