Students and staff respond to DeVos’ proposed sexual assault policy reform

Concordia staff and students have voiced both concern and hope in reaction to US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ proposed reform of Title IX policy.

On Sept. 7, DeVos announced her plan to a group of about 100 invited guests at George Mason University. DeVos’ speech questioned the efficacy of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, a document issued by the Office of Civil Rights under the Obama administration that set guidelines for handling sexual misconduct in schools. DeVos claimed that students accused of sexual misconduct are not afforded appropriate protections by the current sexual misconduct complaint processes, and that these processes often favor the complainant.

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Laura Zeiher, Concordia’s deputy Title IX coordinator, oversees student cases of sexual misconduct. She, along with the rest of Concordia’s Title IX team, must comply with the standards outlined in Title IX and the Dear Colleague letter in order for Concordia and its students to receive federal funds. Zeiher argues that the changes made to Title IX during the Obama administration have made a positive impact on how colleges approach sexual misconduct.

“[Dear Colleague] has given institutions the obligation, the ethical and moral obligation, to investigate situations,” Zeiher said. “If a student comes to us and says, ‘this happened to me,’ we investigate it.”

Before an incident is investigated, Zeiher ensures that the reporting party, as well as the campus community, is not in immediate danger. From there, Zeiher informs the reporting party of both campus and local resources. The reporting party has the option to report the incident to law enforcement, as well as the options to file a formal or informal complaint, or bring the report to a close without seeking further action.

“If the respondent is someone that we know has done this before and this is a repeat offense and there is a immediate risk to the campus, then we might take measures to protect our campus community,” Zeiher said. “But, for the most part, we try to make it the complainant’s decision on how they want to proceed.”

Zeiher said that if a formal or informal complaint is filed, the respondent is notified of the report. Informal complaints are resolved through the respondent’s agreement of certain terms set by the complainant. Informal complaints are not allowed for cases of sexual assault, stalking, or dating/domestic violence. In the event of a formal sexual misconduct complaint, the college conducts an internal investigation wherein a trained investigator interviews the complainant, the respondent, and witnesses provided by the two parties. After the investigation, the investigator presents their findings to a trained adjudicator, who determines whether or not the respondent is responsible.

In her September 7th speech, one of DeVos’ largest criticisms of Title IX’s current complaint process was of its limited appellation opportunities for the accused. DeVos also implied that staff often fail to notify the respondent of the adjudicator’s determination. However, Zeiher has not seen these issues in Concordia’s policy.

“Law requires that we send the determination of the adjudicator to each party at the same time,” Zeiher said. “Once the determination is released to both parties, either party can appeal the determination. All sanctions that may have been placed on the accused party are suspended during an appeal.”

Zeiher said that many of the measures taken in Concordia’s current sexual misconduct handling are in direct correlation with the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.

“Title IX in itself isn’t very lengthy, and so these ‘Dear Colleague’ letters tell us how to implement our sexual misconduct policies,” Zeiher clarified. “[They are] what we use practically.”

Many wonder what guidelines for sexual misconduct colleges would be required to follow if DeVos were to rescind the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter. Marina Que, a junior and international business major at Concordia, said her initial reaction to DeVos’ statements on Title IX was worry.

“I wasn’t surprised when I heard that she wanted to change Title IX—she has made several controversial decisions on polarizing issues already,” Que said. “Based on the policy, it sounds like Concordia is trying to be proactive with their actions. I’m concerned for how campuses will handle sexual assaults after changes are implemented.”

In reference to future Title IX plans, DeVos said she hoped to implement a better system of due process.

“Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” DeVos insisted.

Kylie Windecker is Concordia’s Alcohol and Sexual Assault Programming Coordinator and co-leader of the It’s On Us committee. It’s On Us is a national movement to end sexual assault that was launched in 2014 following recommendations from the White House Task Force to Prevent Sexual Assault. Windecker agreed with DeVos’ desire to fix a broken system, admitting that the current Title IX policies could benefit from improvement. However, she questioned the direction of DeVos’ proposed plan.

“I don’t disagree with her that the system is not perfect. But, it is a complicated process moving forward,” Windecker said. “I think Betsy DeVos’ hope is to make the Title IX system look more like the judicial system. However, for many Americans and many people in this country, the judicial system is one that fails them, that they don’t trust.”

Windecker also critiqued the message that DeVos’ approach might send to victims of sexual assault.

“The other thing I think is really important to be cautious about is in the judicial system, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ for the accused can translate to ‘liar until proven telling the truth’ for the accuser,” she said.

Despite disagreeing with some of DeVos’ points, both Zeiher and Windecker were confident in Concordia’s ability to appropriately respond to any changes in the future. They hoped that students would continue to feel comfortable seeking out the resources available to them on Concordia’s campus.

“If she changes something, we just have have to navigate it,” Zeiher reasoned. “I think that there’s a lot of frenzy, there’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of unknown and I’ve just been trying to relay to students—Concordia still cares about these issues, and I don’t ever see that going away.”

Students can access information on Concordia’s sexual misconduct policy on the Concordia website and in the ConcoLife App.

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