Students, experts disgruntled by proposed sexual assault policy

The policy would affect how sexual assault investigations are handled on college campuses.

University junior Meara Cline, sexual assault task force chair for the Minnesota Student Association, poses for a portrait in Northrup Auditorium on Monday, Dec. 3. Cline says she holds her position because she wants to make sure every student feels safe and valued on campus.

Tony Saunders

University junior Meara Cline, sexual assault task force chair for the Minnesota Student Association, poses for a portrait in Northrup Auditorium on Monday, Dec. 3. Cline says she holds her position because she wants to make sure every student feels safe and valued on campus.

Audrey Kennedy

Students and experts are expressing concern over a proposed policy released last month from the U.S Department of Education that would change the way sexual assault and misconduct cases are handled at college campuses that receive federal funds.

The plan, proposed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, would change current Title IX policies by limiting the types of sexual assault and misconduct cases schools would be required to investigate and narrowing the definition of sexual harassment. The plan also would give protection to students accused of sexual misconduct by allowing them to indirectly cross-examine their accusers through third parties in a disciplinary hearing.

The proposal opened for a 60-day public comment period last week.

The University of Minnesota is currently monitoring and reviewing the proposed changes, according to a statement from the University emailed to the Minnesota Daily.

Changing the definition

While a draft of the proposal was released in August, Meara Cline, chair of Minnesota Student Association’s sexual assault task force, said the recent release solidified the task force’s concerns about the effects it would have on the University.

The proposal seeks to narrow the definition of sexual harassment by requiring the behavior to be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies its victims the equal access to education that Title IX is designed to protect,” according to the proposal.

“At a minimum, it’s insulting to survivors and the value and validity of their story,” Cline said. “Even though it’s very rare for someone to actually press charges and even rarer for someone to be found guilty, [the proposal] is eliminating a lot of pathways to justice.”

The proposal also requires campuses to only investigate incidents that happened on campus or through campus-sponsored events.

“It takes the current standard and raises it to a deliberate indifference standard. It may not sound significant, but having worked on Title IX civil matters … the threshold is much higher in terms of what they don’t have to meet … to be found in violation,” said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses.

Carter said by reducing the number of cases subject to Title IX regulation, schools will have to drop cases that are no longer a Title IX matter. Universities can continue investigating at an institutional level, he said.

According to a statement emailed to the Minnesota Daily from the U.S. Department of Education, the proposed rule requires schools to respond meaningfully to every report of sexual harassment and ensure protections for all students.

“Every survivor of sexual violence must be taken seriously, and every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” DeVos said in the statement.

The proposal’s changes to hearing regulations are particularly concerning, said Maeve Sheridan, president of the University’s It’s On Us chapter, an initiative aiming to end sexual assault on college campuses.

The plan would require colleges to allow accused students to indirectly cross-examine their accusers in a campus disciplinary hearing, which was discouraged in previous guidelines.

“While they’re not personally questioning each other, there is a concern regarding significant opportunity for intimidation of the complainant by the respondent,” Carter said.

Waiting for an outcome

Carter said because of the importance of the topic, the public should have more than 60 days to comment. Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses sent a letter last week requesting for the comment period to be extended to 120 days.

“The circumstances are unlike anything I’ve seen in my 24 years of doing this,” Carter said. “But [the U.S. Department of Education] is obligated to review the public comment and take it into account. I’m hopeful that the impact can be more balanced.”

Sheridan said if the policy passes, people know it will be even less probable for victims to get justice.

“If it does pass, [our goal] stays with supporting victims and survivors to make sure these proposes do not change the amount of support they have from other students,” Cline said. “We have a really important opportunity at the U to say that we do support survivors.”