Betsy DeVos’ New Rule for Dealing with Sexual Misconduct Rolls Back Survivors’ Rights

Supermajority Education Fund

May 6, 2020

On Wednesday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued final rules for how schools in the U.S. must address allegations of sexual misconduct. If passed into law, these rules would allow administrators to ignore the violence that occurs outside of their schools, even if the incidents affect their students, further protect schools from the liability of inadequately handling accusations of sexual misconduct, and employs a procedure that advocates believe may make it more difficult for survivors to come forward.

Specifically, per The New York Times, the new rules “narrow the definition of sexual harassment and require colleges to hold live hearings during which alleged victims and accused perpetrators can be cross-examined to challenge their credibility.” In addition, only the complaints that have been filed through a formal process and submitted to officials, and which involve alleged incidents that happened in the school’s programs and activities, can be investigated by schools. To be found guilty of “mishandling allegations,” an accuser would have to prove the school was “deliberately indifferent” to carrying out the process. 

Advocates for sexual assault survivors are protesting these new rules. As the anti-sexual violence organization Know Your IX tweeted, these changes would “make schools more dangerous and could push survivors out of school entirely.” Know Your IX also noted that these rules do “not prioritize students and survivors, but rather tips the scales in favor [of] named abusers and protects universities and their bottom lines.”

In April 2011, the Department of Education released a letter, called “Dear Colleague,” which clarified that colleges that receive federal money must adhere to Title IX. In September 2017, DeVos reversed Obama-era guidelines — which required that colleges use a “preponderance of evidence” when deciding whether a student is responsible for sexual assault — and only required schools to investigate sexual assault if there was “clear and convincing evidence.”

DeVos has received criticism for finalizing this rule amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted so many Americans’ education. 

“With students already feeling isolated from their community support groups, and with many facing online harassment and quarantining with abusers, the administration is showing us that they are not committed to supporting students with the resources they need in such a vulnerable and uncertain time,” Jaslin Kaur, the student engagement organizer for Know Your IX, told Supermajority News.

Kaur added that because the new rule exempts “off-campus cases sexual violence and harassment,” this puts students at even more risk during a time when they are learning remotely; any sexual assault that happens to students right now would likely be off-campus. 

“This rule is truly putting our systems at risk for letting survivors down and allowing traumatic experiences go unaddressed when survivors need support now more than ever in isolation,” she said. 

Advocates can join Know Your IX’s call tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. to learn more about organizing efforts to hold DeVos and the Department accountable.