On Sept. 14, secretary of education Betsy DeVos delivered a speech on Title IX, calling the current process of handling campus sexual assault a “failed system.” While DeVos provided no specific plan with regards to Title IX, her speech indicated that the policy will be reviewed and most likely revised in some extent.
Ariel del Vecchio, sophomore art and art history major, expressed concerns over DeVos’ remarks that are echoed among classmates.
“My initial reaction to what DeVos has to say is cautious. I would like to think that she will advocate for the protection of victims of sexual assault on campus, but I’m not convinced that she has a deep enough understanding of the way Title IX works. I’m also concerned that this is just another way for the Trump administration to rewrite the policy of the previous administration,” del Vecchio said.
David Tuttle, dean of students, also voiced concern with DeVos’ knowledge regarding Title IX and the associated campus processes, specifically calling out her verbiage.
“I understand the natural skepticism given the appointment of current secretary and her experience “” or lack of experience,” Tuttle said. “I think using terms like “˜kangaroo court’ always shows a certain naiveté about the process. Even saying “˜he said, she said’ oversimplifies things and doesn’t show a true understanding of the nature of evidence. She did keep using that one phrase, “˜the failed system,’ and so, I don’t know if it’s as failed as she believes.”
However, while the initial student reaction was one of skepticism, Trinity administrators are hopeful that DeVos’ openness to potential solutions will help steer her in the right direction.
“I think the first thing that is worth taking into consideration is that there’s going to be a public comment period,” said Pamela Johnston, assistant vice president for human resources and recently appointed Title IX coordinator at Trinity University. “From what I understand, the advice to colleges and universities now is that the current guidelines are obviously still in place, and we should be following them. The changes could end up being minimal, I mean, who knows. Public comment periods often serve a really valuable process in formulating formal rules and regulations.”
Tuttle also spoke to DeVos’ apparent willingness to accept suggestions.
“There were a lot of reactions that came out on various sides on what she said, and it seems like nobody is pleased, but to me the underlying point was that they want to look at it in more depth and they want to collect more information. They were talking about ways to look creatively at solutions. Nobody seems to be that pleased with where things are at right now,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle points out that there are major problems with the current process, especially concerning the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which DeVos did address.
“The OCR should practice what they preach. They dictate a lot of rules to institutions, and they give a strict timeline of 60 days. They outline what standard of evidence we should be using, but they don’t do any of that. We have a complaint that was filed against us in 2014. It’s 2017, and we’re no closer to resolution, there’s very little communication about it. To me, it doesn’t embody those elements that I talk about, of being transparent and being fair to any of the people involved in the complaint,” Tuttle said.
Through stating “the era of rule by letter is over,” DeVos implied that the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, which provides guidelines “” not firm laws “” for schools regarding handling sexual assault cases, will be altered or completely rescinded. [Editor’s note: The Department of Education rescinded the letter on Sept. 22.]
Both Tuttle and Johnston addressed the importance of the Dear Colleague Letter.
“The Dear Colleague Letter, I’ve read it dozens of times, and I just find that, the more I read it, the longer I’ve done this, the more clarity I think it offers. I think it’s good. I think it would be a shame to see that get thrown out,” Tuttle said.
Students worry that rescinding the letter will show a lack of solidarity from the government on the side of victims in sexual assault cases.
“The Dear Colleague Letter has provided important guidance for schools, and has been a real positive for victims of sexual violence. I just can’t imagine that at this institution that victims will be taken less seriously if the Dear Colleague Letter is superseded,” Johnston said.
DeVos also implied that there is a possibility for change in the standard of evidence used in sexual assault cases.
“If I’m a student, probably the thing I would look most closely at is whether or not the standard of evidence changes from “˜greater weight of the credible evidence,’ basically 51 percent, to “˜clear and convincing,’ which is a 75 percent standard. What that would do is make it more difficult for reporting students to have an outcome that they are seeking in a case because it’s a higher standard,” Tuttle said. “Now, the other side would say that it should be that way because you are creating, in a sense, a de facto sexual offender registry by having it go on student records if they’ve been suspended by a sexual misconduct violation, it follows them around, they may not be able to transfer or complete their education, so there are people saying it should be higher because the stakes are greater.”
Both Tuttle and Johnston reassured that regardless of what occurs on a federal level, Trinity will maintain its current stance on handling Title IX cases.
“I always talk about that for us, the three things are being fair, compassionate and transparent, and those are three values that we really try to put throughout our process: to be compassionate to all the parties in a case, and to be fair to all the parties in a case and to have a very evidence-based system in assessing complaints about policy violations that fall under Title IX,” Tuttle said. “Regardless of what the government does, we will maintain committed to a process that we feel like is something that generally treats our students fairly and compassionately. And so, we feel like generally we are on the right track.”
“I am convinced that Trinity is committed to impartiality in all investigations. I just don’t see that changing at Trinity. We don’t know what her final rules and regulations will look like, but Trinity is absolutely committed to upholding Title IX, to providing fair and impartial investigations that are fact-based. And I would just encourage anyone that believes that there has been a Title IX violation on the campus to please come forward,” Johnston said.
For extended reactions from Tuttle, he provided his initial reaction to DeVos’ speech on the Facebook page Coalition for Respect.