WU prepares to comment on proposed Title IX changes

| Senior Editor

The Title IX investigation process is slated to change in accordance with a proposal from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Washington University plans to submit a comment to the Department of Education alongside the other institutions in the Association of American Universities detailing its objections to the proposal.

The proposal, drafted out of DeVos’ promise to replace the Obama-era Title IX guidelines which she repealed, would impose the following changes: assure the right of cross-examination between complainant and accused; limit universities’ responsibility to investigate cases to on-campus or University-sanctioned events; narrow the definition of sexual harassment; give universities the option to use a higher standard of proof in assault cases; and allow mediation as a response to a case involving sexual assault.

Per federal law, the Department of Education has a 60-day commenting period on the proposed rules to field responses from the public. The commenting period on DeVos’ proposal will last until Jan. 28, 2019. After the 60-day commenting period elapses, it will likely take several months for the final changes to be implemented.

The University hopes to comment with the Association of American Universities (AAU) alongside the nation’s top 62 research institutions.

“Our hope is that the AAU will speak with one voice about our objections to these [changes]. If that works and AAU makes a statement that we’re happy with, then we’ll probably leave it at that,” Provost Holden Thorp said. “If for some reason we feel like we need to add to their objections, we’ll figure that out once we know where the AAU is going to end up on all of this.”

According to Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lori White, some of the University’s objections to the proposed rules will be addressed in the University’s comment.

“We will express our concern about only being able to respond to incidents that occur on campus or in University-sanctioned events and want some clarity about whether that means we are required to only follow up on those incidents or whether we are still able, if we choose as an institution, to follow up on incidents that occur between two students wherever those might occur,” White said. “Our student conduct process now covers you as a student and wherever that may occur, so we wouldn’t want to have one standard for student conduct and a different one for the Title IX area.”

White also commented on the University’s objections to a higher standard of evidence for Title IX cases for which the burden would be on the complainant.

“We are wanting some clarity about the standard of evidence,” White said. “We use a preponderance of evidence for all our student conduct cases, including Title IX, and wouldn’t be comfortable with a situation in which there was one standard of evidence for everything outside of a Title IX case, so we would want to be consistent with that.”

According to Thorp, the University plans to reject the proposed cross-examination rule.

“On the cross examination part, that is something we will object to vigorously. The very first time that we did these procedures, long before there were all these movements and rallies, it was designed so that there wouldn’t be cross-examination. And we don’t want that,” Thorp said. “That’s re-traumatizing the victim, and we are already trying to make the process less re-traumatizing even with what we have, and adding cross-examination would make it even harder for us to do that.”

Thorp also emphasized that the University will not lower its standard for sexual harassment unless legally required.

“From what I can tell from reading, it is that we could narrow [the standard for sexual harassment] if we want to, but we won’t be required to,” Thorp said. “We don’t want to narrow it, because we want students to be free of a hostile environment, so if it ends up that they are requiring us to narrow it in some way, then we would reject that too.”

White spoke to what the process of implementing changes will look like once they are finalized and mandated federally. The process White detailed is one that emphasizes community dialogue and survivor support.

“Once the regulations are issued in final form, we will take that opportunity to work with our community, which would mean our students and other administrators who have responsibility for parts and pieces that are affected, and then determine and meet what we’re required to do by law, and then do what continues to affirm our principles,” White said. “Which means we’re going to continue to support survivors, that we are going to make sure we have a process that is fair and equitable to all parties and that we continue to invest in education to reduce the incidence of sexual assault.”

Thorp also wants the University community to understand that the University is committed to supporting survivors.

“I just want people to know we’re going to do everything we can to continue to support survivors and continue to support all of our students in every way we can and do everything we can to prevent a hostile environment based on sex,” Thorp said.

White encourages students to submit comments to the Department of Education stating their own thoughts on the proposed rules and regulations.

“The comment period is open for anyone to comment,” White said. “So, as an institution, we will comment…there’s also an opportunity for anyone else who feels that they want to offer a comment to do so. So, if there are students who also want to register their concern, I would encourage them to do so.”

Washington University student group Title Mine, which advocates for change within the Title IX system to support survivors, will be hosting a comment writing event alongside WUSTL Planned Parenthood Generation Action on Friday, Dec. 7 at 4:30 p.m., with a second session planned for next semester.

Title IX Coordinator Jessica Kennedy could not be reached for a comment.
Title Mine declined to comment.