On Friday, Nov. 16, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed an overhaul to the rules regarding campus sexual assault. The new rules, which could go into effect as soon as spring of 2019, could affect the way Grand Valley State University addresses certain sexual misconduct allegations on and near campus.
These rules would be the first regulations to determine how schools should meet their legal obligations under Title IX, the 1972 law which prohibits sexual discrimination in federally funded academic institutions. The proposed regulations are now facing a 60-day public comment period before they will be finalized.
The proposal aims to reduce the the liability of colleges and universities for investigating sexual misconduct claims and reinforce the due process rights of defendants, including the right to cross-examine their accusers with an attorney. However, use of mediation was determined by the Obama-era guidelines, the Campus SaVE Act, to be harmful to the accuser, even when voluntary. The power dynamic between the victim/survivor and the accused could cause the survivor to feel victimized again. The use of mediation tactics in these situations would turn campus conference rooms into courtrooms.
One of the most significant changes that would go into effect include the very definition of sexual harassment, in the context of campus-related incidents. The Campus SaVE Act offered a broad definition of sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” DeVos’ language in the proposal defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.”
If the proposed changes do go into effect, the way students report sexual assault at GVSU could change as well. Under the proposal, schools will only be held accountable for formal complaints filed through proper authorities. If a student reports an incident to their professor or resident adviser and that person fails to act, the university can’t be held liable because those individuals don’t formally handle complaints. Students would have to make reports to the Title IX coordinator or campus police to ensure that their case will move forward.
Under the proposal, fewer claims would be considered sexual misconduct and GVSU would only be responsible for investigating incidents that are part of campus programs and activities and that were formally reported to campus officials.
As the proposal receives feedback from the public and victim advocacy organizations, the language of the proposal is subject to change.