Recently, along with several members of my teaching cohort, I attended university-mandated Title IX training. Title IX, the federal law that protects students from discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal funds, prohibits sexual harassment and sexual violence. Our training outlined university compliance with Title IX, but it also introduced us to our new role as Mandatory Reporters. As Mandatory Reporters, we are required to report to the university if one our undergraduate students discloses to us that they were sexually assaulted. Lehigh’s policy stresses a commitment to believing these students when they make the admission and providing as much support as possible to survivors of sexual assault.
In a darkly ironic fashion, this training came just four days after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced her plan to roll back Title IX policy implemented during the Obama era. The Obama administration’s policies included:
- Schools must take immediate action to investigate when they are alerted of an incident of sexual violence
- Schools should be taking steps to end sexual violence, to prevent sexual violence from recurring, and to address the effects of sexual violence on campus
- Schools must provide a procedure for students to file reports and must include an equal opportunity for both parties to present witnesses and evidence, as well as appeal rights
More controversially, the policy included a lower standard of proof than is typically acceptable in criminal trials and threatened to revoke federal funds from schools that failed to protect students from sexual violence. Nonetheless, the policy was praised by advocacy groups as a positive step forward for survivors of campus sexual assault. Lehigh’s specific policy places survivor support at its center, and university policy on sexual assault will be destabilized by rollbacks of these provisions.
On Friday DeVos announced that she was rescinding certain Obama-era policies effective immediately. Colleges are now allowed to require higher standards of proof and allowed to provide mediation in cases of sexual assault, which was not permitted under Obama-era policy. Many schools are cautiously waiting to implement these new policies, but the message coming from the government is clear.
DeVos and company appear to be playing right into the notion that female college students are indiscriminately falsely accusing male students of sexual assault, even though the statistics show that a college student is much more likely to be sexually assaulted than to be falsely accused. Never mind that estimates show that most campus rapes go unreported, often due to the perception that colleges mishandle sexual assault cases or dole out disproportionately small punishments.
If students were hesitant to report sexual assault even with policy in place that protected survivors, what will a justice-for-the-accused centered approach do for those numbers? I cannot imagine anything positive. Advocates for DeVos’s changes might say that her new policy better reflects the maxim “innocent until proven guilty,” but the fact remains that almost all survivors are telling the truth. False accusations simply are not happening with the frequency that popular conception purports. Provisions to protect the falsely accused are willfully ignorant of both statistics and of the real sexual violence crisis on college campuses.
As I reflect on today’s decision, my own undergraduate students and my responsibility to them obviously come to mind. In my role as Mandatory Reporter, I understand my obligation is to believe, support, and comfort survivors of sexual violence. But now I feel it’s imperative to advocate for policy, at least at the university level, that protects student survivors of sexual assault. Policy changes should be enacted to better the campus environment, not send students back to a place where fear of reporting is the norm. Student survivors of sexual violence deserve an environment of safety and trust. We cannot advocate for student survivors if we are not advocating for policy that trusts and protects them.