USC, USG respond to Department of Education Title IX changes

Undergraduate Student Government, along with the National Student Alliance Against Sexual Violence and other student leaders across the country, have signed a letter to the Department of Education to reconsider changes to the Title IX regulations. To be implemented Aug. 14, the new rules narrow the complaints colleges are required to investigate and redefine sexual assault. (Daily Trojan file photo)

Undergraduate Student Government President Truman Fritz and Vice President Rose Ritch signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Education expressing concern over changes to Title IX regulations announced May 6. The letter, which was organized by the National Student Alliance Against Sexual Violence, is signed by student leaders from across the country and urges the department to reconsider some of the changes that are set to be implemented Aug. 14.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the new rules narrow the scope of complaints colleges are required to investigate in light of the department’s new definition of sexual assault. Additionally, the Department of Education will soon require Title IX offices to hold live hearings and allow cross-examination for sexual misconduct complaints. 

In a summary of major provisions of the new Title IX Final Rule, sexual assault is now defined as “unwelcome conduct that a reasonable person would determine is so severe, pervasive and offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program,” which differs from the current definition that omits the “reasonable person” clause.

In the letter, student leaders claim that the Final Rule narrows universities’ definition of sexual harassment and compromises campus safety and student well-being. 

“This definition will prevent students from seeking assistance from their school until their access to education is completely denied, rather than allowing students to seek assistance before the trauma and abuse escalates,” the letter read.

The issue of sexual assault claims on college campuses is especially relevant to USC, where, after learning that a former campus gynecologist abused hundreds of women over multiple decades, the Department of Public Safety’s 2018 annual security and safety report found an increase in allegations of sex offenses, aggravated assault and acts of violence against women. According to the 2019 Association of American Universities Campus Climate Survey, 31% of USC undergraduates said they were sexually assaulted during their college years — a rate higher than the national average of an estimated 25%.      

Fritz and Ritch want to pull together USC’s campus leaders on the issue of campus assault and hope that students will get involved in the cause.

“It’s been really cool to watch [the letter], within our own personal networks and within our USG network, expand,” Ritch said. “It’s an important issue … and even beyond the college campus it’s also affecting high schools and any sort of institutions getting funding from the government.”

The new Final Rule regulations also states that colleges no longer have to designate most employees as mandatory reporters — a policy that typically requires faculty and staff to inform the campus’s Title IX office upon hearing about potential allegations of misconduct. Additionally, the Department of Education will now permit colleges to use a “clear and convincing” standard, as opposed to a “more likely than not” standard when determining if a sexual assault occurred. According to the Chronicle, the changes create a presumption of innocence for those accused, perpetuating the idea that a survivor is automatically thought to be lying.

“[This] will allow universities or colleges to use a higher standard of evidence … despite the preponderance of evidence standard being consistent with civil right law,” the letter read. “Evidence required to meet the ‘clear and convincing’ standard is often difficult to obtain in interpersonal violence cases, and creates unacceptable barriers to support for survivors.”

Fritz said many of the provisions reduce accessibility for marginalized individuals to seek out support and explore assault and harassment reporting options.

“Marginalized communities bear the greatest burdens [during] these incidents, whether it is the LGBTQ+ community, students of color, students with disabilities,” Fritz said. “There’s a lot of different changes that were made to Title IX that we don’t think are at all realistic, especially during a global pandemic.”

While the letter expresses concern for the Final Rule changes, it also points out the allegedly burdensome timing of these changes.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Final Rule was released amidst the COVID-19 crisis, thereby forcing universities to divert precious resources from COVID-19 remediation to Title IX reorganization when many are already facing increasing financial burdens,” the letter read.

Another notable provision to the Title IX rules outlines that while colleges must investigate off-campus sexual misconduct that occurs in educational activities in university-owned buildings and university-sponsored trips, colleges are not required to investigate misconduct that occurs in off-campus living, during study abroad or unrecognized fraternity houses.  

“This narrow definition is deeply concerning given that many students live off-campus and social gatherings take place off-campus,” the letter read. “In addition, given the global COVID-19 pandemic, the educational setting has moved almost completely online, thereby rendering students more vulnerable to online harassment.”

Fritz and Ritch believe that students impacted by campus assault are those who are most at risk during this pandemic and that the timing of these changes is troubling. They said they are concerned that these changes also allow campuses to shirk institutional responsibility for harassment and assault that occurs online, off campus and abroad.

“I also think it’s troubling because there’s a certain stipulation that allows greater leeway for colleges and universities to revoke responsibility for online and off-campus harassment,” Fritz said. “Off-campus is troubling enough, but the fact [is] that there will be a lot of colleges and universities online — if not entirely [online], hybrid.”

The Chronicle reports, however, that DeVos claims that now is the ideal time for campus administrators to begin implementing these changes because students are away from campus due to the coronavirus. 

In response, American Council on Education President Ted Mitchell condemned the issuing of these regulations at a time when colleges across the United States are closed, calling the regulations a “cruel” and “incomprehensible” mandate to implement by Aug. 14.

“The Department of Education is not living in the real world,” Mitchell said in a statement. “As a result of the pandemic, virtually every college and university in the country is closed. Choosing this moment to impose the most complex and challenging regulations the agency has ever issued reflects appallingly poor judgment.”

While Fritz and Ritch hope that a resolution will be reached with these new changes, the pair plans to work closely with administrators and student leaders to kickstart a larger dialogue related to Title IX and sexual assault. 

In a statement to the Daily Trojan, USC Senior Vice President of Human Resources Felicia Washington said the University is grappling with how to address these “significant” changes.

“While we are obligated to comply with federal law, we have the discretion to continue to prioritize our efforts to foster a climate free from sexual violence, to seek to reduce barriers to reporting, and to hold individuals accountable for conduct that violates university policy,” Washington wrote. “We will continue to provide resources and support to any impacted students and employees, to provide prevention and education programming, and to refine our processes for reporting, investigating, and resolving Title IX reports to ensure that they are accessible, fair, prompt and equitable.”

Fritz and Ritch have been in communication with administrators and pledge USG’s commitment to working with USC’s Policy and Community Advisory Committee, which brings together staff, faculty, administrators and students, to discuss these changes on a university level.

“We recognize that this is something federal, and as powerful as having thousands of students signing a letter and ask for these changes and repealment, there is a possibility that that’s not going to happen,” Ritch said. “So then it comes back to what sort of resources can we provide, what can we do then as a student body, as individuals, as a community to help support students who are having to go through these things.”

Washington expressed USC’s commitment to including students’ voices regarding revised changes in the future.

“As we move forward with policy changes, we will communicate directly with our community to share our response to the Title IX regulations,” she wrote. “And in keeping with our Trojan traditions, we will be seeking input from multiple and diverse perspectives from campus constituents before we finalize any changes.”

Students in need of assault, harassment and gender-based violence resources can seek support and assistance from Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Services located in USC Student Health’s Engemann Student Health Center Suite 356. In case of an emergency or if you are in need of immediate assistance, call (213) 740-9355.

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