By Marcelle Rutherfurd
On Friday, Sept. 22, the Department of Education announced that revisions had been made to the procedures for investigating sexual assault on college campuses. President Crawford sent out an email that day announcing the changes to the campus community.
“Earlier today the U.S. Department of Education released revised guidelines relating to the procedures by which educational institutions investigate, adjudicate, and resolve allegations of sexual misconduct. We will continue to follow our existing policies and procedures … while we study the new guidelines and seek advice from the Office for Civil Rights and legal counsel,” the email read.
The University has been in the process of updating the campus policy prohibiting sexual misconduct for the past two years. A few days before the announcement, the President sent out the new policy to the campus community. As of now, the University policy remains unchanged.
“The University is committed to our students. We will continue to follow our existing policies and procedures while we study the new guidance, see advice from the Office for Civil Rights, and work with counsel,” Tiffany Davis, the Deputy Title IX coordinator, said.
The Department of Education released a “Dear Colleague” letter and a Q&A. These documents rescinded two earlier “Dear Colleague” letters from the Obama-Biden administration, one written in 2011 and the other in 2014. The basic purpose of the “Dear Colleague” letters and Q&As is to provide guidelines as to how school officials understand Title IX and all of its moving parts.
This particular “Dear Colleague” letter removes the 60-day limit imposed on sexual assault investigations. The idea of this is to give colleges and universities more time to deal with the situation on their own before reporting to the federal government or law enforcement. The other side of this is that it removes the need to quickly gather evidence and submit a report, which could mean less of a chance of justice for the accused.
“This is an updated guide to how to interpret the Title IX law in terms of investigating sexual assault,” Marta Cady, Associate Dean of Students and Director of New Student Orientation, said.
Cady handles much of the sexual assault prevention programming on campus, including the Green Dot Program. She has been keeping a very close eye on news coming out of the Department of Education regarding changes to sexual assault protections and how they might affect the University.
“Since it just came out Friday, our Title IX officer Michael Benitez and our deputy Title IX officer Tiffany Davis have not thoroughly vetted what it means for us. And yet when I talked to the director of student conduct, the guidelines that they released in terms of our policies and procedures, I don’t think they’ll have a huge effect,” Cady said.
As of now, the administration on campus is sticking to their policies and procedures for investigating sexual assault. The updates from the Dept. of Education are concerned with providing equal treatment to both the victim and the accused, and those involved in working with this issue at the University feel that the updated policies already reflect this.
“We just went through a whole draft and finalization of the policies and then we also did the procedures, too. Our policies and procedures are based on the last “Dear Colleague” letter in the Obama-Biden administration and our policies and procedures really reflect that. There are a few things in the new letter and Q&A that Tiffany Davis talked about, but I don’t think there’s going to be a huge affect on what we already do because we already try to be very fair to respondents and complainants both,” Cady said.
“There was a committee that worked on that [the updated University policy] for the past two years prior to President Crawford. There was a desire to be very clear with the policies and procedures and I think we achieved that,” Cady continued.
Major news outlets have been reporting that Betsy DeVos, the new Secretary of Education, has highlighted sexual assault investigation as something that needed changing. According to The New York Times, DeVos began discussing Title IX and sexual assault with various organizations in early July. She met with advocacy groups as well as groups who support the rights of the accused.
Those working with victims of sexual assault on campus are fearful of what the Dept. of Education might do to make college campuses less safe for everyone. Head of Peer Allies Emily Katz said, “Although I don’t foresee our school being forced to change anything about our new policies and procedures, I am worried about people’s perception of these national changes.”
There is both relief and continued anticipation after the release of the new “Dear Colleague” letter. Although this first move does not affect Puget Sound in any major way, there is a sense that there might be more changes on the way.
It is inconsistent with past actions of the government to rescind earlier protections put in place by the previous administration, as this has a sense of “rolling back” protections for students affected by these issues.
“I’m sad that they rescinded the 2011 and 2014 pieces from under Obama-Biden. I don’t know why it was necessary to rescind those pieces. They could have just said here is some more further explanation or here is our thought process on this because that is kind of more typical, but they didn’t need to rescind the other two. I think they could have kept the other two and said ‘here’s an update to that,’” Cady said.
“When you read through the Q&A that they provided, they could have done horrible things and they didn’t. I guess it’s kind of in line with less government influence and more say for colleges and universities. Like you should all have good policies and procedures and our letter and Q&A is saying you should do the right thing and have good and clear policies. It doesn’t have to be as directed by the government,” Cady continued.
More say for colleges and universities in how they handle sexual assault means something different for each school. In 2014, a student at Columbia University filed a complaint with the administration about the mishandling of her sexual assault. It escalated to her eventually suing Columbia, and the University settled with her in early July 2017, according to CNN.
Puget Sound has a strong sense of how these things are handled on campus. This is evidenced by the recent updates to University policies, as well as by the many various types of on-campus support available to victims. Cady is clear in the fact that those support systems will not be changing their approach any time soon.
“We are going to educate ourselves obviously on what this Q&A says and what this letter says, but we are really here to be in support of victims. And that won’t change,” Cady said.
“I feel like this administration might still be planning on putting another clarification out. This probably isn’t the end of it. I’m hoping that they listen to public comment on it. I am a bit fearful of these policies and procedures inhibiting some of that reporting. My mantra has always been that we need to talk about this stuff. It’s not great to talk about and yet we need to in order for people to feel comfortable and get the support they need.”