Letter to the Editor: Title IX change could have chilling effects

The following is a letter from the female members of the Delaware House Democratic Caucus regarding the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed Title IX rule change. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently released a rewrite of federal Title IX guidance that allows schools to raise the bar on what evidence is needed to prove claims of sexual assault and harassment.

Members submitted an official comment as part of the Department of Education’s public comment period, which is open until Jan. 28:

Dear Secretary DeVos:

We write to you as mothers, aunts, friends and female members of the Delaware House of Representatives on behalf of young women and men throughout Delaware who could be put at risk due to your proposed Title IX rule. This overhaul, promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education, does not improve the current process, and in fact provides more roadblocks for victims. We fear the implications and impact that these guidelines could have, and strongly urge that you reconsider them.

In Delaware, we have worked across the aisle to combat harassment and assault, and prevent it from occurring in the first place. Lawmakers have unanimously passed legislation to address accountability, encourage care and services for victims and support trauma-informed, comprehensive training for students, student groups and faculty that is aimed at preventing and identifying sexual assault.

A safe environment in which to cultivate learning should not be a luxury; it should be an expectation. Yet, this statistic still rings true today: one in five college women are sexually assaulted. Stepping forward to report an incident of sexual assault or harassment is harrowing and shouldn’t be made any more difficult. The DOE guidelines as written will not only cause additional barriers for victims, but it may actually deter them from reporting the crime in the first place. Live hearings, cross-examination and the extremely narrow definition of harassment are just a few of the concerns we have with these guidelines.

We should be encouraging reporting of harassment before it becomes as your rule suggests “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” If we wait until the point that harassment severely impacts a person’s ability to participate on campus and succeed in school — then we’ve waited too long to intervene and failed our young people.

We propose these revisions and reforms to your guidelines:

• Rewrite the definition of harassment so it does not preclude victims from coming forward.

• Explicitly protect all students who experience sexual harassment and violence, including those who are harmed off campus.

• Require schools to use the preponderance of the evidence standard.

• Push schools to take responsibility to act on complaints by improving the notice procedure for sexual harassment.

• Discourage use of cross-examination in a hearing, which can re-traumatize victims.

We will be monitoring closely, and will look to act on the state level if Delaware students will be at risk under the final rule. We must focus on protecting all students and having a process in place that supports resolutions. A victim should be able to bring a complaint forward without fear of not being believed and without fear of being re-traumatized through the reporting process.

What kind of message do we send to our young people if we do not fight for a supportive, inclusive educational experience?

We can and should do better.

Valerie Longhurst
House Majority Leader

Kim Williams
Andria Bennett
Stephanie T. Bolden
Sherry Dorsey Walker
Krista Griffith
Debra Heffernan
Kendra Johnson
Melissa Minor-Brown
State Representatives

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