Federal Title IX proposal criticized by N.H. lawmakers, university officials

  • U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan and Rep. Annie Kuster gather with advocates, sexual assault survivors and university officials at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Concord on Monday to discuss the latest proposal from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. —Alyssa Dandrea/Monitor staff

  • Harmony Reid stands for a photo at campus at Plymouth State University in Plymouth on Sunday, March 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 11/19/2018 6:01:15 PM

Lawmakers, sexual assault survivors and university officials united Monday in saying victims will remain in the shadows and suffer further trauma should a federal proposal changing the way educational institutions respond to sexual abuse and misconduct moves forward.

The proposal from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to overhaul the way colleges and universities handle complaints received strong criticism Monday from Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and members of New Hampshire’s Democratic congressional delegation. Sununu joined U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and Rep. Annie Kuster in expressing concern about how the proposal significantly narrows the definition of sexual harassment and requires schools to investigate only if the alleged misconduct occurred on campus or at other areas overseen by the institution. (Currently, schools are mandated to review all students complaints.)

“I am extremely disappointed to think 40 years after I was in school that there could be a generation of students ... that have less protection than we had,” Kuster said during a roundtable discussion at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Concord. “This takes us backward to a time when people did not have the courage to speak up.”

Title IX – the civil rights law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex – was enacted to ensure critical protections are in place for those who come forward, so they can continue their education. Under DeVos’s proposal, sexual harassment would apply to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity; or assault.”

Officials said Monday the proposal from DeVos will strip key elements of Title IX and allow for abuse to escalate, leaving minority groups particularly vulnerable. That includes LGBTQ students, many of whom are already fearful of reporting harassment at schools because they doubt effective intervention will occur, Sununu said.

“The proposed regulations could potentially undermine the very purpose of Title IX and have an adverse effect on survivors’ ability to pursue education,” Sununu wrote in a letter to DeVos, asking her to reassess her proposal.

About one in four women and one in 10 men will be sexually assaulted while in college. University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovations’ researchers say that equates to 246,000 first-year students throughout the United States who will be raped before they graduate, if they graduate at all.

When researchers interviewed women, ages 24 to 65, who had been sexually assaulted in college, they found that one-third never finished college and two-thirds suffered academic failures that affected their GPA, said Sharyn Potter, executive director of research at the center and professor of sociology at UNH.

“When we think about sexual assault, this is not a one-time event; it’s an event that sticks with victims for a lifetime,” Potter said.

That downward spiral is all too familiar to sexual assault survivor Harmony Reid, who was raped by an acquaintance during her first week as a freshman at Plymouth State University in 2006. Reid told lawmakers and university Title IX coordinators Monday how she struggled through school and didn’t care at the time that she’d failed four courses as long as she received her diploma.

Had DeVos’s proposal been law when she was a student, she believes she would have suffered far greater trauma and harassment.

“These proposed guidelines would be cementing silence,” Reid said.

Under DeVos’s proposal, schools would be allowed to use a higher standard of proof when weighing cases. Under the Obama administration schools were told to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning the allegation is “more likely than not” true. But DeVos would allow a “clear and convincing” standard, meaning the claim is “highly probable.”

There is a 60-day public comment process before any rules are finalized.

(The Associated Press  contributed to this report.)

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