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Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education in the United States, has proposed changes to Title IX that could have major effects on students—and yet many don't even know what this important amendment is. Despite its recent media coverage, there is still much confusion about the purpose of Title IX and what impact the proposed changes would have on college students especially.
Staying up to date and informed can be difficult when you're in college because of the number of things vying for your attention—classes, work, money, and more—so I'm here to break it down for you. If you're a student, Title IX is vital for your protection, so you need to know what it is and you deserve to have a say in any proposed changes.
What Title IX Does:
- Title IX is an educational amendment passed in 1972.
- According to the US Department of Education, Title IX "prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance."
- It includes "sexual harassment; the failure to provide equal opportunity in athletics; discrimination in a school’s science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses and programs; and discrimination based on pregnancy" as stated by the Department of Education.
- It covers most colleges and post-secondary educational institutions.
- It also protects individuals who file a complaint or advocate for a right protected by Title IX from retaliation.
So basically, it ensures that all students, no matter their gender, have an equal opportunity to receive an education from federally-funded institutions and that schools effectively prosecute those who get in the way of this.
Proposed Changes to Title IX
DeVos proposed changes to the current Title IX policies in November of 2018, and the public is divided over whether or not they would be beneficial to educational communities. Students are within the biggest group that would be affected by these changes and therefore should make their voice heard on the issue. Here's the run-down on DeVos' biggest proposed changes:
- Under DeVos' proposed changes, those accused of sexual harassment or assault would have new protections, including "presumption of innocence throughout the grievance process," according to the press release by the Department of Education.
- The proposed changes would require that universities allow a live hearing that includes cross-examining the accuser.
- The proposed changes also includes a narrower definition of sexual harassment: "unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school's education program or activity" as stated in the Department of Education's press release, as opposed to "unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, OR objectively offensive" as it currently stands.
- Schools would only be required to conduct an investigation when they have "actual knowledge" of harassment (meaning a formal complaint is filed with the appropriate official) within a university program, and a school would only be held responsible for not responding if it was deemed to be "deliberately indifferent" according to the Department of Education.
Potential Impact of Proposed Changes on College Students
It's up to you to decide whether or not to support these proposed changes—but here are some of the basic pros and cons to aid your decision process.
Positive aspects of the proposed changes:
- Presuming the accused to be innocent throughout the investigation could give the accused a better chance to defend themselves.
- A live cross-examination could help corroborate the story of each party.
- A narrower definition of sexual harassment makes it easier to pinpoint when it occurs.
Negative aspects of the proposed changes:
- Coming forward with a sexual harassment or assault accusation is difficult enough for the accuser—and investigators going in with a mindset that the accused party is innocent could lead to victim-blaming lines of questioning, which would add an extra challenge for survivors who are already reluctant to come forward.
- Being cross-examined by a lawyer live is extremely intimidating, and could be another barrier to a survivor of sexual harassment or assault reporting the incident, especially when it involves re-living a traumatic event. This could lead to more psychological distress for the survivor.
- A narrower definition of sexual harassment means more incidents that don't meet the specific criteria of the description could slip through the cracks.
- For example, repeatedly complimenting a person on their body after being asked to stop is pervasive, but not necessarily severe or objectively offensive.
- Only requiring schools to investigate sexual harassment when a formal complaint is filed could also lead to more incidents slipping through the cracks.
- These proposed changes make it easier for people accused with sexual harassment to defend themselves, but they also make it more difficult for survivors of sexual harassment and assault to get justice—which is problematic because 11.2% of college students experience sexual assault, and of these, 63% go unreported, according to RAINN. These numbers are a cause for concern and making it more difficult to get justice for these incidents could drive the percentage of reported assaults even lower.
Make your voice heard.
DeVos' proposed changes could take years to pass because of their significance—so whether you support the changes or not, you have plenty of time to voice your opinion. As a student, it's important to take a stand on an issue with such a significant impact on your life. Contact your local representative and make your voice as a student heard!