The enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972 signified the beginning of a serious effort from the federal government to give students equal opportunity to succeed in school regardless of gender. Part of this goal was to enforce a set of comprehensive rules that would keep students safe from sexual abuse and sexual harassment and enforce penalties against schools that do not comply. The latest move by the federal government to undermine the rights of women and girls came last month when the Department of Education took action to strip Title IX of its protections. GELC fiercely opposes the new Title IX Regulations and we submitted a public comment, along with thousands of other organizations and individuals, detailing the dangerous effects that the new regulations will have on victims of sexual misconduct – including permitting schools to not respond to allegations of sexual abuse and imposing greater burdens on student victims of sexual harassment.
Even with the current protections under Title IX, sexual harassment and sexual abuse in schools remains a frequent and widespread problem. This persistence alone demonstrates a clear need to strengthen Title IX regulations, not deplete students of their rights to remain free from sexual misconduct. With school being the setting in which students spend the majority of their time, and a place where youth and young adults are meant to flourish, the importance of these rules in ensuring their well-being cannot be overstated.
GELC strongly opposes any legislation or action that undercuts protections from gender-based violence, or that threatens to impede women’s and girls’ access to equal opportunity; in this case, an education. Thus, GELC’s comments on the proposed regulations to the Department of Education warn of the potentially egregious negative effects on students if these rules are to take effect. We were far from alone in our submission of these concerns: in fact, we joined thousands of students, teachers, parents, and organizations who believe that promoting resources for victims of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools should be the Department’s priority – not removing necessary standards that will result in doing nothing but shielding schools and perpetrators from taking accountability.
Currently, school leaders are accountable for failing to address incidents of sexual violence that they reasonably should have known about. The proposed rules seek to needlessly raise this standard of liability to situations where school leaders were aware of an incident of sexual violence and deliberately ignored it. This shift in responsibility permits administrators to take a passive role in preventing sexual abuse in their schools, causing incidents of unaddressed sexual abuse to skyrocket. Amending the rules so that “deliberately ignoring” an incident of sexual abuse is the only situation for which schools are held liable, does nothing but shield schools from liability at the expense of student safety.
The proposed rules also make it more difficult to report abuse, specifically for student victims of one of the most imbalanced forms of sexual abuse—abuse by a teacher or faculty member. That is, the proposed rules attempt to shield schools from accountability unless a Title IX administrator was aware of the faculty-on-student abuse (and yes, this applies to student victims under 18 who are victimized by an adult school employee). Where a student is brave enough to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse to a trusted school official – one of the most difficult things to do in any case – the particular “job title” of that person should be immaterial to whether the school administration is responsible to intervene. Furthermore, the proposed rules raise the level of abuse that must be reached before school officials canintervene. In other words, schools will only be required to address abuse that deniesa student’s access to a school program, permitting serious abuse that interferes with students’ ability to learn or causes students to struggle in their programs, to go unchecked. In addition, the new rules state that school leaders will actually be required to ignoreall complaints of sexual abuse that occur off-campus or online, even if the student is forced to see their abuser on campus every day and the abuse directly impacts their education.
The proposed rules ignore the various ways in which sexual misconduct impacts students and overlooks the realities of where student life takes place. Almost 9 in 10 college students live off campus, and much of student life occurs outside of school activities—forming the basis for why schools are currently required to address sexual abuse regardless of where the abuse occurs. These unreasonably high standards for students communicate to many, if not all, victims that they are unworthy of intervention. Victims of sexual abuse are already uniquely discouraged socially, economically and politically from coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse – the new rules codify additional barriers for victims by challenging whether they can even report sexual misconduct depending on confusing and arbitrary standards of the type, severity and location of where the sexual misconduct took place.
Each of these proposed changes baselessly limits schools’ obligations to address abuse, freeing schools from responsibility while placing enormous burdens on student victims. This will surely and directly exacerbate the already high rates of sexual abuse in schools, leaving a growing number of victims with less resources and support than before. The proposed rules are irrational, harmful, and ignore the foundational purposes of Title IX, threatening to dismiss decades of progress and to revert student life to an era where safety from sexual harassment and violence was non-existent. GELC unequivocally opposes these rules, as we understand the effect will be to force girls, women, and LGBTQ individuals, all of whom are overrepresented as victims of sexual misconduct, out of school and out of an education. From our perspective, any amendments to current Title IX laws should be motivated by protecting victims and promoting equal educational opportunities, not by freeing schools from liability to the detriment of its students.