Content Warning: Sexual Assault
The Department of Education has released new Title IX guidelines—rules about how cases of sexual assault can be handled by schools. The release on Nov. 16 comes over a year after they repealed many of the existing regulations issued in 2011 and 2014 and put interim guidelines in place.
This editorial board finds the new proposed guidelines unacceptable and urges the university and Title IX office to take a rapid, strong stance against them. We encourage students to make their voices heard by attending the final university listening session on Dec. 10 and independently submitting comments to the Department of Education.
These proposed changes create barriers for survivors to come forward with their stories and will make the decision to do so more arduous than it can already be. Any proposed changes to Title IX should make reporting easier, not harder, for survivors of sexual assault. These new regulations are a complete reversal from the mindset of the two previous presidential administrations, and it is a turn for the worse. The burden of living through a sexual assault is painful enough without the government making it harder to penalize the persons responsible.
The new guidelines depart significantly from the Obama-era 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter and the 2014 “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence.” They change the definition of sexual assault, limiting its scope to what the Department of Education defines as: “Consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity.” This significantly narrower definition creates greater room for survivors to doubt their own experiences and could make it more difficult to prove an assault has happened.
The preponderance of evidence standard is currently used to determine a case’s outcome, meaning that the accused must be “more likely than not” to have committed the assault. With the new guidelines, schools can choose to either use preponderance or the new “clear and convincing” guidelines, which would make the burden of proof much higher. Guilt would be decided based on at least a 75 percent likelihood of committing the crime, as opposed to the previous 50 percent standard.
Under another proposed change, incidents can only be reported to the Title IX office if they have a connection to the school, like if they happen on campus grounds or at school-recognized events. This is a clear reversal from the “Dear Colleague” letter which said universities should protect students assaulted off-campus from further harassment. For example, the proposed regulations offer fewer protections for students attending off-campus parties. Specifically at Georgetown, this creates a loophole for fraternity and sorority events, as Greek life isn’t recognized by the university.
Finally, the new guidelines allow cross-examination to test the credibility of parties and witnesses. Obama-era guidelines strongly discouraged schools from allowing parties to personally question or cross-examine each other during hearings, and asserted that the process of cross-examination can be traumatic.
This editorial board is concerned with Georgetown’s ability to deal with these changes. The university has yet to fill the post of Title IX Coordinator, which has been vacant since June, and, as of Dec. 5 when this issue went to print, the Title IX office has not responded publicly to the proposed guidelines. We urge the Title IX office to provide a comprehensive explanation of how these proposed changes would affect the student body. Although university President John DeGioia has announced that the university will be making an official comment either on its own behalf or in conjunction with relevant universities, he did not provide much explanation for what the administration is doing and how it will affect students.
DeGioia did, however, announce the three-part listening sessions hosted by the university, during which any member of the university can voice their opinions, potentially affecting the official comment the university will submit. Two of these have already taken place, but the final one will be held on Dec. 10 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Healy Family Student Center Social Room. Although some attendees felt disappointed by the way the sessions were run, it remains valuable for students to share their opinions. Individuals and groups may also submit independent comments directly to the Department of Education on the proposed regulations until Jan. 28, when the comment period closes. Above all, students need to be active in voicing their thoughts regarding regulations that favor the respondent rather than the complainant, and the Department of Education has a responsibility to address the comments submitted to them.
This editorial board will submit a version of this piece to the Department of Education, which we have included below, and which can be used by any student or campus organization as a template for their own comment. We encourage people to acknowledge their anger and emotions. Speak out. Do not let awareness of this issue fade away as the news becomes less timely and we go on break. These drastic changes could make the difference in whether one’s rights are protected by their school or one feels safe reporting their experiences.
Not only are the changes a step in the wrong direction, but the 144-page document which outlines the new regulations is difficult to understand. The university has a responsibility to provide more answers for students. Some questions we had as a board include: What constitutes conduct that occurs within its “education program or activity”? Can Georgetown modify the guidelines? Will the university be held legally responsible if they don’t follow them? How will this affect Georgetown students specifically? We shouldn’t have to be asking these fundamental questions. It is unsafe for students to be unaware of where they are protected by their university and where they are not. If we as students can’t understand these guidelines, then how are we supposed to know exactly how they will affect us?
We encourage students to speak up about why Title IX should not lower thresholds for perpetrators and raise barriers for students when choosing whether to undergo the stressful process of making a complaint. It shouldn’t limit the definition of sexual assault but broaden it. It shouldn’t restrict the scope of universities to investigate, but expand it.
Health Education Services (HES): firstname.lastname@example.org
Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS): 202-687-6985
D.C. Rape Crisis Center Hotline: 202-333-RAPE (7273)
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN): online.rainn.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Georgetown University Resource Center: sexualassault.georgetown.edu/resourcecenter
Title IX Online Reporting Form: georgetown.protocall.info/incident-report
Below is the official comment the Voice is submitting to the Department of Education. If you or your student organization would like to use this as a template for your own submission, we have bolded sections to be tailored for your use.
There is a 5000 character limit, and the deadline for submitting a comment is Jan. 28.
We are writing to you on behalf of the Editorial Board of The Georgetown Voice, a student-run publication at Georgetown University, because we find the proposed Title IX guidelines to be unacceptable. These proposed changes will create barriers for survivors to come forward and will make the decision to do so more arduous than it can already be.
The limitation of the definition of sexual assault to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” seems to only require schools to investigate the most extreme complaints. This significantly narrower definition creates greater room for survivors to doubt their own experiences and will make it more difficult to prove an assault has happened.
The new clear and convincing standard, which will make the burden of proof much higher, favors the respondent by placing increased value on their words rather than those of the complainant. The previously used preponderance of evidence standard allowed equal benefit of the doubt to both parties. With this change, a respondent is only guilty if there is a 75 percent likelihood they are responsible. This imbalanced change in the standard will make it unduly difficult for investigations to settle on the side of the complainant.
The change to include only conduct within a school’s program or activities means only a fraction of incidents can be reported to the Title IX office. This is a clear reversal from the “Dear Colleague” letter, which said universities should protect students assaulted off-campus from further harassment. Not only does this limit the protections offered by the Title IX office, but it also creates confusion over where students are protected and where they are not. Specifically, at Georgetown, would this create a loophole for assaults at fraternity and sorority events, as Greek life isn’t recognized by the university?
Finally, the new guidelines will allow cross-examination to test the credibility of parties and witnesses. Obama-era guidelines strongly discouraged schools from allowing parties to personally question or cross-examine each other during hearings and asserted that the process of cross-examination can be traumatic. We agree with this evaluation and urge the Department of Education to protect possible victims from further trauma.
Title IX should not lower thresholds for perpetrators and raise barriers for students when choosing whether to undergo the stressful process of making a complaint. It shouldn’t limit the definition of sexual assault but broaden it. It shouldn’t restrict the scope of universities to investigate but expand it. The Editorial Board of The Georgetown Voice compels the Department of Education to address our criticisms, and release new guidelines, as their first responsibility is to the safety of students.