On Nov. 16, 2018, under the leadership of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the United States Department of Education revealed its newly proposed regulations regarding schools’ treatment of sexual misconduct allegations. Students for Sexual Respect at NYU is deeply concerned with Secretary DeVos’ focus on schools’ reputations instead of the wellbeing of survivors of sexual violence. As a survivor-centered group, we released a statement in September of 2017 when Secretary DeVos issued an interim guidance on Title IX compliance and enforcement that put survivors of sexual violence at risk. Once again, we feel it is necessary to condemn the proposed regulations for their blatant prioritization of institutions and the accused over the rights and safety of sexual assault survivors.
The proposed regulations narrow the definition of sexual harassment 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.” To compare, under the administration of former President Barack Obama, sexual harassment was formally defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” The limited scope of DeVos’ proposed standard increases the burden on survivors of sexual violence to provide evidence, which would mean fewer reports and institutional remedies for or punishment of harassment.
If put into effect, the regulations would also allow schools to refuse to respond to a sexual harassment claim that occurred outside of a school program or activity, reducing institutional obligation to keep students safe. Additionally, under the new regulations, a school would only be held liable if a narrow set of school officials had “actual knowledge” of the misconduct allegations, forcing survivors to make reports to individuals often inaccessible to students. Institutions would also only be held accountable by the Department of Education when the schools are “deliberately indifferent” to sexual misconduct, an impossibly high standard. These changes reduce institutional obligation and liability for keeping students safe and give schools enormous amounts of discretion in implementing restrictions.
All of the above regulations are damaging to survivors’ agency, ability to find justice and heal from traumatic experiences. We write this to assure the NYU community — and survivors in particular — that Students for Sexual Respect will continue to fight for NYU students’ right to an education free from gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination. We encourage other NYU student organizations who feel strongly that these rules are damaging to survivors to submit a comment during the 60-day public notice and comment period through Jan. 28, 2019. Furthermore, we call upon the NYU administration to publicly oppose the Department of Education’s regulations and submit a statement to this effect during the comment period. Lastly, we call on the NYU administration to provide assurance that the scope of its sexual misconduct policy and the protections it grants to complainants will not change in response to these regulations.
We understand that this a difficult time for many, and we stand in solidarity with survivors at NYU and across the country. Students for Sexual Respect will always prioritize the health, safety and rights of survivors and will work to support you in whatever way we can.
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