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Are we not better than this?

Proposed rule changes to Title IX by Betsy DeVos promise a return to the 1990s, to let schools off the hook for covering up rape and sexual harassment.

Photo by Carol Lollis/Daily Hampshire Gazette

Lena Sclove, who said she was raped and strangled while she was a student at Brown University, told her story at a news conference held at the school's front gates on April 24, 2014, saying she had felt silenced by the university because they had not done enough to keep her safe. She also said that Brown officials had originally discouraged her from going to the police.

By Toby Simon
Posted 9/17/18
The new proposed rule changes to Title IX by Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos threaten to roll back decades of progress in how campuses deal with sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment.
When will the Trump administration’s policies of separating children from their parents, then detaining the children at the border, housing them in cages and temporary tent cities be seen as government-sanctioned child abuse? What are the long-term behavioral health and mental health consequences of students who are victims of sexual assault, rape and harassment on college campuses? What is the takeaway from the lenient penalty given to Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer? Which university and college presidents in Rhode Island will speak out against the proposed Title IX changes by DeVos?
The latest denial by President Trump about his refusal to accept that some 3,000 American citizens died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, and to blame the total as somehow being manipulated by Democrats, would be laughable if it were not part of a larger problem facing the nation: the unwillingness of many Republican leaders in Congress to say, publicly, not only that the President is a liar but that such lies need to be challenged by Congress.
It comes down to a sense of political expediency versus believability, which is also at the core of the dispute over the proposed changes to Title IX by Betsy DeVos. DeVos recently lost a lawsuit brought by 19 states for wrongly delaying regulations to protect students who took out loans to attend students from predatory practices.

PROVIDENCE – Do not parents who are sending their sons and daughters off to college deserve a safe campus climate, one that addresses the dangers and harm that sexual harassment causes?

Shouldn’t parents want a campus community that talks about sexual interactions in a positive, thoughtful and pro-active, pro-sexuality manner?

Shouldn’t the goal for all colleges be to address these complexities in a way to reduce harm? Don’t we owe it to young men to talk about what it means to be a man?

During the 1980s and 1990s I was an Assistant Dean in the Office of Student Life at what my late father-in-law used to call “the best known college on the East Side of Providence.”

Since my area of expertise was human sexuality, I often had students come to talk to me about their sexual experiences. And, more often than not, as the students' stories unfolded, it was clear that what they were describing – in their own words – was a non-consensual sexual encounter.

The majority of these students were women but not exclusively. Men also made appointments to talk about encounters that felt unwanted, confusing and assaultive.

Not many options then
During the 1980s there were not many options for students who wanted to seek recourse if they had been the victim of sexual assault and harassment. And there weren’t many people on campus trained to address students’ concerns.

Staff from the RI Rape Crisis Center, now Day One, trained a number of women faculty and staff at the university to respond to students who felt they had been sexually assaulted. Our training included assistance to students who wanted to file police reports as well as ways to support students going through the law enforcement process. It also included information about the campus disciplinary procedures, how to go about filing internal charges and how to exercise both options.

Sometimes students talked to me following a visit to an academic dean where they disclosed what had transpired. One common scenario was the dean telling the student that she needed to put her “complaint” in writing and to return to their office when they had a written statement.

What was far more damaging to students who sought help from male deans was to be told things like:

“It sounds like a little romance gone wrong”; or “Why don't you get your grades up and transfer”; or “This is what happens when you drink too much.”

Violating Title IX
As it turned out, as far back as 1990 many universities were violating the Title IX regulations, which required university personnel who had a student disclose a sexual assault to him/her to act immediately on the complaint. The language was specific that the student’s complaint needed to be addressed immediately whether it was an oral admission or in writing.

During my time at this East Side institution and at hundreds of other universities, the 1990s and first decade of 2000 was rife with sexual misconduct cases that clearly favored the accused student.

We often called some of these cases “sweetheart deals” because the male student was allowed or encouraged to withdraw from the university, transfer to another college and there would be no addressing the case since the student was no longer a student there.

There was also no mention of the case to the new institution. Those cases that went before campus discipline systems more often than not resulted in a “non finding” or “not responsible” for sexual misconduct of the accused student.

Then – and now – the stakes are extremely high for a student who is seeking recourse through the campus disciplinary system to have a committee rule that sexual misconduct did take place.

Before #MeToo
Remember that all of this took place before the #MeToo movement, so many college women were simply not believed.

In fact, in questionnaires to transfer students at institutions where I have worked, one of the major reasons women transfer colleges is because they were sexually assaulted at their former institution and either had unsuccessful experiences with the handling of their cases, the accused was still on campus and/or the school had encouraged students to transfer.

Although today campus discipline systems may be better equipped to hear these cases because the panel has actually been trained to understand the dynamics of campus rape, this certainly was not true 25 years ago. And the reason colleges are better equipped in 2018 is due to the Obama administration’s changes to Title IX.

Obama takes a stand
In 2011 the administration decided to take a stand and make colleges safer for all students and to make it easier who students who may have been sexually assaulted to seek recourse. They wrote some new regulations to Title IX, which included having a Title IX coordinator whose role was to investigate incidents of sexual misconduct. Most colleges had a Title IX coordinator but that person worked with departments of athletics to ensure there was compliance in gender issues.

The new regulations also required much more training to take place on campus for a variety of groups: campus police, faculty, administration, sports teams, fraternities, new students, health service personnel, and coaches. The training also included how to refer students to local law enforcement to report cases.

DeVos proposes revision to rules
Now U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed revisions of the rules governing how campuses address allegations of sexual misconduct. A year ago DeVos declared Obama’s policies created a “failed system” that resulted in an inflation in what constituted sexual misconduct: it could include behavior that met the legal definition of rape as well as inappropriate sexual comments, unwanted sexual attention and sexist jokes.

To be clear – inappropriate sexual comments, unwanted sexual attention and sexist jokes all fall under the definition of sexual abuse. These behaviors are referred to as sexual harassment and they can be extremely damaging to anyone who has to endure them.

Reducing sexual harassment on campus makes a campus safer and might actually be “good for business” by attracting more women students and boosting, rather than hurting, alumni contributions.

Although writer Emily Yoffe believes that Title IX has resulted in the over-policing of sex between young adults, I think her description below is not an accurate one: “But on campus the rhetoric has been alarming, telling young women they are weak, helpless and lack sexual agency, and that their male classmates are inherently violent and exemplars of
‘toxic masculinity.’”

While “toxic masculinity” may play a role in some cases of sexual misconduct, there’s also excellent work being done with men and women on campus to address the complexities of sexual interactions, gender issues, sexual communication and the role that alcohol and other drugs play in sexual violence.

The new regulations that DeVos wants to implement will have us returning to the 1990s when the accused had the advantage and the accuser often remained silent. One glaring example of the problems created under the proposed changes by DeVos is that colleges will now only be liable if the sexual assault takes place on campus or during a school-sponsored program in the U.S. The majority of college students do not live in residence halls and this change to the regs will result in fewer women coming forward to report.

DeVos seems intent on protecting the accused more than she wants to make campuses safer for women students. The activist group Know Your IX said it best: “The Trump Administration’s proposed rules have one clear goal: to let schools off the hook for covering up rape and sexual harassment.”

Once again we find ourselves asking: aren’t we better than this?

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.


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