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Students hold signs as they take part in a walkout at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Massachusetts on April 30, 2018 in response to the school's handling of a sexual assault case.

Students hold signs as they take part in a walkout at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Massachusetts on April 30, 2018 in response to the school's handling of a sexual assault case. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

'We'll Fight This': Groups Outraged Over DeVos 'Gutting' Title IX Protections for Survivors of Sexual Violence

"We refuse to go back to the days when rape and harassment in schools were ignored and swept under the rug."

Jessica Corbett

Advocacy groups that support survivors of sexual harassment and assault are vowing to fight against federal rules set to take effect in August governing how all public and private U.S. schools, including higher education institutions, must respond to allegations involving students.

"We won't let DeVos succeed in requiring schools to be complicit in harassment, turning Title IX from a law that protects all students into a law that protects abusers and harassers."
—Fatima Goss Graves, NWLC

The Trump administration's new rules for Title IX—the U.S. law that bars sex-based discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal funding—were unveiled Wednesday by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to replace an Obama-era guidance she suspended in September 2017 after months of meeting with "men's rights" groups.

The final version tempered parts of DeVos' proposed rule replacement from November 2018, which critics condemned as "heartless and immoral." Survivor groups maintain that the new rules still unjustly bolster the rights of the accused and will discourage reports of sexual misconduct.

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), warned in a statement that if these new rules are allowed to take effect, "survivors will be denied their civil rights and will get the message loud and clear that there is no point in reporting assault."

"We refuse to go back to the days when rape and harassment in schools were ignored and swept under the rug," declared Goss Graves. "And we won't let DeVos succeed in requiring schools to be complicit in harassment, turning Title IX from a law that protects all students into a law that protects abusers and harassers. We will fight this unlawful rule in the courts."

Goss Graves' warning about how DeVos' new rules could impact survivors and promise to take on the federal policy in court were echoed in a statement from Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The Trump administration's policy is "an abomination" and "the antithesis of what Title IX was intended to do," said Gupta. She warned that if the rules take effect, they will silence students who have been subjected to sexual misconduct and limit their educational opportunities.

"This is all part of this administration's ongoing attempts to undermine the civil rights of students," Gupta added. "All students deserve an educational environment free from sex discrimination and violence. We will work with our allies to fight this rule and send it to the dustbin."

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser promptly announced that his state would challenge the federal policy, which would undermine schools' abilitites to adopt stricter policies. Weiser also warned that the new rules "threaten to prevent or discourage victims from coming forward and receiving the justice and protection they deserve."

The New York Times reported Wednesday on DeVos' overhaul of school Title IX proceedings, which was detailed in over 2,000 pages:

The new regulations narrow the definition of sexual harassment and require colleges to hold live hearings during which student victims and perpetrators can be cross-examined to challenge their credibility. The rules also limit the complaints that schools are obligated to investigate to only those filed through a formal process and brought to the attention of officials with the authority to take corrective action.

Schools will also be responsible for investigating only episodes said to have occurred within their programs and activities. And they will have the flexibility to choose which evidentiary standard to use to find students responsible for misconduct—"preponderance of evidence" or "clear and convincing evidence."

To find a school legally culpable for mishandling allegations, they would have to be proven "deliberately indifferent," in carrying out mandates to provide support to victims and investigate complaints fairly.

DeVos discussed the new policy in a video and said in a statement that it "requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process."

The Education Department framed the development as DeVos taking "historic action to strengthen Title IX protections for all students" and highlighted that "the new regulation comes after years of wide-ranging research, careful deliberation, and critical input from survivors, advocates, falsely accused students, school administrators, Title IX coordinators, and the American people, including over 124,000 public comments."

The Know Your IX project pointed out in a series of tweets how the policy "tips the scales in favor [of] named abusers and protects universities and their bottom lines."

While the policy was welcomed by some right-wing campus organizations, critics accused the education secretary of "gutting" Title IX protections for survivors and expressed their outrage on Twitter with the hashtags #DearBetsy and #HandsOffIX:

Some critics slammed DeVos for unveiling the long awaited policy change in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered many schools throughout the country for the remainder of this academic year.

"Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are dead set on making schools more dangerous for everyone—even during a global pandemic," said Goss Graves. "Releasing this rule during the unprecedented challenges of Covid-19 unveils a disturbing set of priorities."

Gupta concurred. "It is unconscionable," she said, "to do this as students and institutions grapple with teaching and learning during a public health crisis."

In a joint statement Wednesday, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) said, "It is alarming that instead of focusing on helping students, educators, and institutions cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the [Education] Department wasted valuable time finalizing a rule that will erode protections for students' safety."

"While the department's stated intent was to secure due process for those accused of sexual misconduct, the actual effect of its rule will be to erode protections for students, weaken accountability for schools, and make it more difficult for survivors seeking redress," added Nadler and Scott. "Both the timing and substance of this rule are unacceptable."

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