Betsy DeVos, United States secretary of education, announced Sept. 7 that her department is replacing federal guidance regarding Title IX. To help dispel confusion and address concerns on Lehigh’s campus, a Title IX town hall was held in Maginnes 101 on Oct. 12.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex at schools and programs that receive federal funding, including protection from sexual harassment. The guidance, developed in 2011 and 2014, was established by the Obama administration in an effort to make investigations of sexual assault and harassment fair and equitable for all students.
According to interim guidance enforced by DeVos, the 2011 and 2014 guidance has now been rescinded until new guidance is issued. Colleges are no longer bound to the old framework and can establish their own procedures and policies for Title IX cases until further notice.
The Department of Education has not made any comments regarding when new guidance will be issued or how the guidance will be changed. However, policymakers believe the new guidance will most likely be imposed in 18 months.
DeVos’ announcement inspired backlash from college students, advocacy groups and policymakers nationwide. Many are concerned about the ambiguity of the announcement.
At Lehigh’s town hall, interim associate dean of students Chris Mulvihill, assistant dean and director of the Office of Gender Violence Education and Support Brooke DeSipio, and Title IX coordinator Karen Salvemini answered questions from students, faculty and staff.
Students asked how DeVos’ announcement will impact Lehigh’s Code of Conduct, existing fair and equitable practices, and the campus environment.
At the town hall, Salvemini said although the 2011 and 2014 guidances have been rescinded, Lehigh’s current Title IX policies and procedures will not change until new guidance is given.
“Right now, the interim guidance is not impacting what we’re doing,” Salvemini said. “From our perspective, we’re continuing to do what we have been doing and trying to improve on that.”
Mulvihill echoed this statement, informing students the Code of Conduct will also remain unchanged. He said when the 2011 guidance first came out, Lehigh’s processes had already met the majority of the guidance with the exception of two minor changes.
For example, Mulvihill said the preponderance of evidence standard in the Code of Conduct will not change. To find a student responsible for any violation of the Code of Conduct, there must be a preponderance of evidence to find the student responsible.
“We’ve had that standard since at least 1985,” he said. “We’ve always had that and we’re not planning on changing that, unless the federal government requires us to do so.”
Salvemini is unsure of what new guidance under DeVos will look like. However, there is an expectation the Department of Education will conduct a “notice and comment” process.
The notice and comment process entails ensuring that procedures are practical, necessary and aligned with public interest. This is done by providing the public with a platform to communicate with the government.
During this process, the federal government publishes documentation about what they plan to impose on the federal level and allows the public to provide comments, feedback and questions in a 30-to-60-day period. Once this period closes, all questions are reviewed and answered.
The notice and comment process was not previously used for the 2011 and 2014 guidances, which factored into DeVos’ decision to replace the guidance. She believes the previous system has failed survivors and the accused because it lacked this transparency.
DeSipio said the biggest impact on Lehigh’s campus is the message the announcement sends to students, particularly survivors. She said some national comments that were later apologized for consisted of typical victim-blaming language.
“If you look at the pattern of feelings or responses that survivors experience after experiencing a sexual assault, they often are feeling self-blame, guilt, doubt,” she said. “They’re victim-blaming themselves. And so, a lot of the conversation that has been happening nationally is feeding into that, rather than helping to dispel that for them.”
DeSipio said there seems to be a division between those who support the accused versus those who support survivors. She feels this division should not exist.
“You can have a fair, equitable community process for students, and you can still be treating survivors with dignity and respect and offering them support,” DeSipio said. “So I think we need to be doing both.”
DeSipio also said this environment differs from that of the prior administration during the “It’s on Us” campaign. The campaign, started by President Barack Obama and the White House Council on Women and Girls, brought national attention to the fact that survivors of gender violence have not always been treated fairly.
“It’s a really difficult thing to report and go through that process,” she said. “It’s underreported and it’s a problem on college campuses. We’re really trying to help prevent these things from happening on campus and to report and get resources for when it does.”
Lehigh students said the Title IX town hall helped clarify some uncertainties students had about DeVos’ announcement.
Shelby Carr, ’17, is a graduate student and teaching assistant at Lehigh. She attended the event because she felt it was important to see Lehigh standing by and supporting survivors. However, she said she wished there was a formal response issued by the university when DeVos made the announcement.
“I wished there was more dialogue from the university about how they’re still implementing policies,” Carr said. “They sent out a really nice statement about DACA, but we haven’t seen anything about Title IX yet.”
Claire Silva, ’17, a graduate student and teaching assistant, said she attended the meeting to better understand her role as a mandatory reporter at Lehigh.
“We were introduced earlier in a teaching world to be mandatory reporters for the university, so if one of our students came to us for help, it would be our job to report to the Title IX coordinator or Brooke (DeSipio),” she said. “Staying current on how we can best help them and what the actual laws and policies are is part of that responsibility.”
Silva said although the town hall helped clarify Lehigh’s position on Title IX, it has not clarified what direction the federal government is taking.
Sarita Mizin, ’12, a doctorate student, agreed with Silva.
“I think (the town hall) was helpful in clarifying for us that the (policies) themselves are very unclear and that Lehigh is trying to make something clear that has not been clear from our federal administration,” Mizin said.
One of DeSipio’s biggest frustrations is that conversations about sexual violence have been predominately reactive, rather than proactive.
“Why are we not using this opportunity to talk about how to prevent this stuff from the first place and why are we not providing funding and research and support for campuses to help prevent these incidents? Instead, we are going to the reactive,” DeSipio said. “That is, for me, not helpful. We should be preventing them from happening in the first place.”
Regardless of what occurs after the estimated 18-month time frame, Lehigh will continue to provide resources and support for its students.
“We are going to keep trying to preventing (sexual assault and harassment) from happening and offering programs, events and education,” DeSipio said. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. I want our students to know that they are loved and believed and supported and they have spaces on campus to get help and support for these issues.”