Possible Title IX shifts would affect UMN campus sex assault policies

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos announced a notice and comment period last week.

Jonathan Du

Some University of Minnesota advocates say they are worried that a potential change to Title IX, the federal law governing how universities handle sexual assault, could be harmful to victim-survivors.

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that federal guidance for university sexual assault investigations will undergo a public notice and comment period, driven by concerns about false accusations. The University will continue to follow current guidelines unless formal changes are announced, officials say. 

“As advocates, we are concerned about the direction and narrative around all of the false accusations. We know that the data doesn’t actually support it,” said University Aurora Center Director Katie Eichele. 

In her speech at George Mason University, DeVos said she consulted with victim-survivors, administrators and university students falsely accused of sexual misconduct prior to opening up comment on potential new guidelines. No federal regulations have been changed.

“One rape is too many. One assault is one too many. One aggressive act of harassment is one too many. One person denied due process is too many,” DeVos said. 

Guidelines for universities handling sexual assault cases established by the Obama administration didn’t take public input into account, she said.

“Rather than engage the public on controversial issues, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights has issued letters from the desks of un-elected and un-accountable political appointees,” she said, alluding to the 2011 Dear Colleague letter authored by former Vice President Joe Biden. 

The letter contains 92 specific recommendations on how universities could better handle sexual assault. Since the Office for Civil Rights deemed the letter informal guidance, it didn’t have to go through the notice and comment rule-making process that other federal rules undergo. 

“Notice and comment rule-making is a time- and resource-intensive undertaking that agencies frequently try to avoid by issuing less formal guidance,” said Kristin Hickman, a University professor specializing in administrative law.

These comment periods allow agencies to receive public input that can help them address complex issues more thoroughly, Hickman said.

Eichele credited the Dear Colleague letter with raising awareness about sexual misconduct and motivating universities to analyze their policies and processes.   

“Due to the Dear Colleague letter, there was more awareness and voice that these types of violations were occurring at a student conduct level as well as law-violation level,” she said. 

Eichele said her and other advocates from across the Big 10 plan to use the notice and comment period to advocate for policies that support victim-survivors.

University policies won’t change unless new federal regulations are announced, said Tina Marisam, the University Title IX coordinator.

“Certainly we care about due process and equity for all folks involved in the processes because we know as advocates that if due process is not afforded to all parties involved in the reporting and responding of these kind of incidents, the reality is that it always comes back to hurt victim-survivors,” Eichele said.