Civil liberties groups cheer Title IX changes

NICK EICHER, HOST: In 1972, Congress updated the Civil Rights Act with an amendment that became known as Title IX. That provision outlaws sex discrimination at colleges and K-12 schools. It also spells out policies governing campus sexual harassment and violence.

BRIAN BASHAM, HOST: The Department of Education provides guidance to schools to help implement those policies. And earlier this month, the Trump administration issued a set of new requirements. WORLD reporter Laura Edghill has our story.

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: The Title IX revisions released the first week of May strengthen due process rights for those accused of sexual violence on campus. But they also shore up supports for victims.

COHN: It’s a huge victory for complainants in particular to make sure that their educational needs will be met no matter what.

Joe Cohn serves as the legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech advocacy group.

He says practices on college campuses over the years have swung too far in favor of the person bringing the complaint. That often leads to unjust punishments for those accused. He says the new rules rebalance the scales of justice and, more importantly, go a long way toward restoring Title IX’s original intent.

COHN: It wasn’t really designed to be a secondary shadow justice system. It was supposed to be there to ensure that sex-based discrimination didn’t drive students away, didn’t take them away from pursuing their educations.

Education Department officials spent the last year and a half combing through more than 124,000 public comments on the proposed revisions. The new rules replace previous Obama-era guidance that was frequently criticized for stripping the accused of their rights.

DE VOS: Title IX has brought an end to many injustices since it was enacted. And the new rule we announce today will help end more.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos described how Title IX now protects individuals from being punished before the evidence proves responsibility. She also emphasized that the new rules now carry the force of law.

DE VOS: For the first time ever, Title IX codifies into law sexual harassment as the discrimination it is. Before now, administrations only addressed it through Dear Colleague letters, which are not legally binding and do not have the force of law. We owe students more than letters.

The regulations take effect August 14th, so even though schools are currently preoccupied with a host of issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, they need to prepare. The new law requires them to hold live hearings and allow cross-examination of witnesses. They also must presume the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and adhere to a standardized definition of harassment.

Opponents quickly condemned the announcement. They say the changes shift protections too far in favor of the accused and create barriers to justice for victims.

Faith Ferber is a victim’s rights advocate.

FERBER: My reaction? I’m feeling really hurt after the announcement today. As a survivor, as an activist, as someone who’s been doing this work for almost five years now, it really feels like a slap in the face.

Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber says the new rules could have a chilling effect on victims.

DAUBER: They will make victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault far less likely to report.

Opponents of the law are particularly concerned about live hearings. They claim that requirement could make individuals already traumatized by sexual violence fearful to come forward. They also complain about the level of scrutiny required for behavior to be considered harassment. And they say alternative processes such as mediation or restorative justice could be intimidating for victims who’ve already suffered harm.

But Joe Cohn points out victims would face a live hearing in a criminal case. He also notes the new Title IX rules more closely mimic the off-campus legal process.

He said ultimately the introduction of strong protections for the accused is a win for everyone involved.

COHN: One of the main things I think people don’t think about is that due process isn’t only a benefit to the accused student. Complainants derive a lot out of due process protections. Even the protections that are one-sided and only go the other way, because it’s the presence of these procedural safeguards that gives the process its legitimacy.

He also emphasized that the addition of an extensive array of supportive services is really good news for victims. Those services may include modified class schedules, assignment extensions, housing changes, counseling, escort services, and even institutional enhancements like increased security in an area of campus.

But the bottom line, Cohn says, is that the Title IX revisions focus the law firmly on the accuser’s access to education.

COHN: And these regs say, absolutely, you must always be thinking about what ways you can support a complainant, to ensure they can continue their education. That’s really monumental.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Laura Edghill.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) In this Feb. 27, 2020, file photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pauses as she testifies during a hearing of a House Appropriations Sub-Committee on the fiscal year 2021 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

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