U.S. Education Secretary proposes changes to handling sexual harassment allegations on college campuses

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U.S. Education Secretary proposes changes to handling sexual harassment allegations on college campuses

Michael Brown, Managing Editor

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed a number of changes that would alter the way reports of sexual harassment are handled on college campuses.

The proposed changes would overhaul how schools nationwide address sexual harassment complaints, alter the definition of what sexual harassment is on campus, and reinforce due process rights for the students accused of sexual harassment.

“Reports of sexual misconduct are taken seriously at TMU,” said Chris Powell, director of Campus Safety and Title IX Coordinator for TMU. “It is also our responsibility to ensure everyone involved is afforded the appropriate due process.”

Under the Obama administration, sexual harassment was defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

However, under the proposed changes, harassment would be defined as one of three categories: “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;” “quid pro quo harassment” that would “condition an educational benefit” on a person’s sexual conduct; and sexual assault.

“Any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation,” DeVos said in a statement. “But if everything is harassment, nothing is.”

Additionally, the changes would allow for students accused of sexual harassment to cross-examine accusers during sexual misconduct hearings, although officials with the U.S. Education Department say it would be carried out through a representative to avoid confrontation between students.

“I haven’t had to experience any harassment of the sort during my time here, but I would say that being cross examined by someone that harassed me would be pretty horrific,” said Monique Barnard, a senior liberal studies major from Dixon. “Even if I knew exactly what happened and knew for a fact that the other person was in the wrong.”

Barnard, like many students across the country, has concerns over the proposed changes.

“I think there’s some good stuff in it,” said Juan Moncayo, a senior kinesiology major. “But there is some stuff in there that’s a bit concerning.”

One of his concerns is the redefining of the term “sexual harassment.”

“It seems to me like they’re just adding conditions onto things that they can later on cling on to,” Moncayo said. “What does ‘so severe’ mean, you know?

TMU has a number of trained individuals who function as investigators or adjudicators to the Title IX processes, according to Powell.

“Faculty and staff identified as mandatory reporters, or ‘responsible employees,’ are required to view a training video which outlines their responsibilities to pass on reports of sexual misconduct to the Title IX office,” Powell said.

While the changes were proposed at the end of 2018, they are not expected to go into effect any time soon, as they will likely face a number of hearings, according to government officials.

“TMU does not currently allow cross examination through a hearing,” Powell said. “But if federal law required this change we would adjust both our policies and practices to comply.”

Additionally, approximately 100,000 comments were made on the proposed rules during a mandatory period for public comment, and the Department of Education will have to go through all of them before deciding whether to continue the process of mandating changes, according to federal law.

“It worries me because there are many times when people are not even willing to share about it,” Moncayo said. “Now they might be even less willing to share when the rule says that it has to be ‘so severe.’”

“I would just worry that it would scare women off from wanting to share what happened to them, which is already difficult in the first place,” Barnard added.

If anyone feels as if they have been sexually harassed, they can find the TMU grievance procedures in the student handbook under the “Sexual Misconduct Policy” appendix, which outlines how TMU will respond when provided with actionable complaints of sexual misconduct.