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Cornell Students Challenge Betsy DeVos’ Title IX Guidelines [AUDIO]

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is proposing changes to rules about how Title IX is dealt with at federally-funded schools. Days ahead of the end of the public comment period, there have been more than 96,000 comments — including a number from Cornell. WRFI’s John Yoon brings us this report.

Students at Cornell in their own letters are urging the Department of Education to withdraw the proposed changes to Title IX procedures.

Students have protested Cornell’s handling of sexual assault since 2012, coupled with steps by the college to overhaul its policies. The Cornell Daily Sun reported that the school had the highest number of reported sexual assault incidents among New York State colleges in 2018.

Students wrote their own comments at a letter writing event on Friday. Some carried personal experience of sexual violence and the emotional challenges of reporting them.

Ekarina Winarto said the changes might discourage those dealing with sexual harassment to pursue a hearing through the Title IX Office.

“Personally, I do think that some of the proposed changes would dissuade victims from actually coming forward,” Winarto said. “So if the purpose is to encourage victims to come forward, I don’t necessarily think that these are really the changes that you would want to see.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said her focus is to make Title IX proceedings more transparent and consistent and to give more due process rights to the accused. Four Title IX lawsuits are currently active against Cornell for due process reasons, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But critics view the proposal as protecting sexual harassers.

Alice Navadeh said the new regulations would worsen the low sexual assault reporting rates on college campuses, citing statistics from a study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“I think that these new changes are appalling,” Navadeh said. “One in five women will be sexually assaulted on college campuses, and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted on college campuses. Already 90 percent of the survivors don’t report. It’s still traumatic for survivors to have to go through that process, but it’s not as traumatic because it’s not as long and the standard of proof is lower.”

According to the proposed rule by the Department of Education, schools will have to apply the clear and convincing standard of evidence — this is higher than the currently used preponderance of evidence standard.

At Cornell, the Office of the Judicial Administrator requires “clear and convincing” evidence that a student is responsible in non-Title IX cases. Under the proposed regulations, Cornell’s Title IX Office would have to require that same higher burden of proof to accusers of sexual misconduct.

Navadeh said she is concerned that the new regulations will limit the school’s responsibility to address Title IX violations that occur off-campus. The proposal states that schools would only have the requirement to intervene in encounters that occur within a school’s program or activity.

“The way that nine out of 10 students live off campus and how having a new part of this Title IX thing saying that students off campus the school can’t do anything about—that’s not only bad for students who go to school at Cornell, but that’s also really bad for students that go to technical schools, cosmetology school to community colleges,” Navadeh said.

“If they are sexually assaulted by another student, the school can’t do anything about that if this is passed. … But it’s still important for that case to be listened to.”

The new regulation also allows parties of a sexual assault hearing to cross-examine each other in the same room.

Many of the students commenting on the proposed regulations were survivors of sexual assault or friends of those who experienced it. They described their personal experiences with the Title IX Office and explained why they believe the proposal would make it more difficult for others like them to seek justice.

Winarto, who is a graduate student, said sexual violence on campus is an important issue for her peers.

“I’ve never been personally involved in any case, but I know that for a lot of graduate students, for example, this is very, very important—especially relationships between advisors, advisees—in that type of relationship has been really a long standing rumor and problem amongst grad students,” Winarto said.

All of these new guidelines, if adopted by Cornell, would change existing university policies. What remains unclear is how students who want to report sexual violence will perceive the Title IX Office differently.

Kat Nelms said the proposed regulations could personally affect those she knows.

“I know a variety of people, actually, myself included, so this is something I care about,” Nelms said. “I’ve talked to people who work in the Title IX Office and they’ve been super supportive and they really do everything that I feel like they can to support students and they make themselves available. I’m not sure how if this law passes, how that will impact what the Title IX Office does on campus.”

The Department of Education must review every comment on the proposal and respond to those that warrant a reply. Given the volume of comments, it could take many months for the department to analyze the response and consider modifications.

The deadline for submitting comments is by January 30.

This piece first aired on WRFI Community Radio News on January 29, 2019.

Photo by John Yoon.