Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston College ’09, announced that he will be issuing a public comment to the U.S. Department of Education to challenge the proposals to change Title IX in a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re making sure that [U.S. Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump hear our message loud and clear from Boston,” the Democrat said. “We believe survivors. We believe women and we believe they deserve the most support and more compassion, not less.”
Walsh was joined by representatives from colleges and nonprofits in Boston, including Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College; Lee M. Pelton, president of Emerson College; Melissa Kelly, president of Suffolk University; and Debra Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc.
Title IX is a federal law that states that no person can be denied benefits or excluded from participation in activities on the basis of sex under any education program that receives federal funding. The changes DeVos has proposed would change how sexual harassment in education is defined and handled under these rules.
“Today, as new federal regulations are being considered, we must be mindful not only of the progress that we have made, but also the work that still needs to be done,” Pelton said. “I fear that if approved with modification, the new regulations could risk reversing that work.”
One of the changes would alter the Obama administration’s “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof for sexual harassment and assault cases. Established through the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, this rule asks that the party bearing the burden of proof present evidence—although regarded as the lowest standard of proof—that showcases that the crime is more than likely than not to have occurred. The new proposal would offer colleges the choice of requiring “clear and convincing evidence,” which is a higher threshold—although still below “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the level used in U.S. court systems.
Kelly said that she believes in the importance of a presumption of innocence and the right to due process, but she is concerned about the new changes to the requirements for evidence in colleges and universities.
“We also believe that the process must not serve to discourage students who have experienced sexual assault from coming forward and need not and should not attempt to approximate the criminal justice system,” Kelly said.
Other changes would allow the accused to cross-examine the accuser, although both parties will remain in separate rooms and communicate electronically. Critics argue that such a system would intimidate victims from coming forward due to fear of facing their attacker.
“When a survivor of sexual violence is deterred from coming forward, repercussions can be enormous,” Pelton said.
A number of the speakers stressed the damage that sexual assault can have on students’ lives. Some have trouble attending classes, and many will drop out or experience mental or physical health problems.
Robbin emphasized that students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students are more likely to be victims of sexual violence.
“This is not just about gender justice,” she said. “It’s about racial and social justice.”
The new rules would also change the definition of sexual harassment from any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to “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 recipient’s education program or activity.”
Furthermore, colleges would no longer be required to investigate incidents that occur off campus. This would be especially detrimental to students at urban campuses, since many of them live off campus in apartments, according to Robbin. Additionally, this could impede investigations of assaults that take place while students are abroad.
The legal responsibilities of colleges and universities will also decrease under the new proposals. Schools will no longer be liable if a professor or resident assistant does not report sexual assault or harassment. Lastly, colleges would be given more flexibility in the option to use mediation and other forms of informal intervention. This, however, would only be used at the discretion of the accuser.
“As a member of this society and as a feminist, it is my moral obligation,” Walsh said. “As mayor it is my job to protect the health and safety of all of our residents.”
BC has not issued a statement regarding the proposals to change Title IX. As of now, the University is maintaining the policies it has in place, but will revisit them when the final regulations are released to see if any of them are required by law to change, according to Melinda Stoops, the Student Affairs Title IX coordinator and associate vice president for Student Affairs.
Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor