Federal Title IX changes redefine sexual harassment, prompts discussions about how to handle future cases

The Department of Education’s new regulations, released May 6, to combat and examine cases of sexual misconduct and harassment in schools will go into effect Aug. 14.

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Hunter Long

The Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response

Logan Cromeens, Staff Writer

On Wednesday, May 6, the Department of Education⁠, led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, released a new set of regulations that will govern the implementation of Title IX from the Education Amendments of 1972. These changes will go into effect on Aug. 14.

Title IX bans discrimination on the basis of sex in educational settings, with sexual harassment being a form of gendered discrimination prohibited by the policy. 

According to the Department of Education website, these new rules will “strengthen Title IX protections for survivors of sexual misconduct and restore due process to campus proceedings to ensure all students can pursue an education free from sex discrimination.”

The new guidelines redefine sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct that a reasonable person would determine is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” This is a change from the 2011 definition of sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”

Additionally, the new guidelines will allow for the accused’s representation to directly cross-examine those making the accusations. While this expands the rights of the accused, student advocates like VSG Committee of Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Chair Josie Weck say that this provision may be traumatizing for assault survivors and have negative repercussions.

I am of the opinion that cross-examination does nothing to increase the efficacy or fairness of a Title IX hearing,” Weck said in an email to The Hustler. “The silencing effect they will have on survivors is heartbreaking.”

These new rules also will allow schools to select their evidentiary standards in cases of sexual misconduct. Schools can either require “clear and convincing” evidence in sexual harassment cases or maintain the preponderance standard set by the 2011 provisions, which states that the accused would be found responsible if the evidence showed it was more likely than not that the crime occurred. The standards selected must be applied evenly to all proceedings, according to the Department of Education website. 

Each of these changes, as well as the other roll-backs proposed, are a concerted effort to impede survivors’ ability to seek support and justice on their campuses,” Weck said. “[The changes] cultivate an environment of hostility which I think we can all agree is the last thing we need on college campuses right now, especially when it comes to the rights of survivors.”

Student Body Vice President Shun Ahmed also relayed her dissatisfaction in the recent Title IX changes in an email to The Hustler. 

“At their core, these new standards of enforcement threaten the safety and rights of campus survivors,” Ahmed said. “Rather than encouraging a balanced and equal playing field, they reinforce the strict dichotomy of protecting accused students at the expense of survivors.” 

Vanderbilt responded to the Title IX changes in a statement on the University website on May 6. 

“Vanderbilt is deeply committed to ensuring the safety of each and every member of our community,” the statement reads. “We are reviewing the new Title IX regulations, and will take the time necessary to examine these complex rules to ensure we implement them in a manner that protects the well-being and safety of university community members and respects the rights of everyone involved.”

The director of the Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response, Cara Tuttle Bell, stated in an email to The Husler that emphasizing the resources available to students is the most productive thing anyone can do at this time. 

“The release of the new regulations may prompt thoughts or difficult discussions about interpersonal violence during this already trying time, and I want to remind students that Project Safe remains available to listen, support, and assist you, wherever you may be,” Tuttle Bell said.