Sexual assaults that occur a block from campus could be a block too far for the Office of Equal Opportunity to investigate. This is one of many changes to Title IX, proposed by the Trump Administration, that sparked concern among members of the Cal Poly community.
Students and faculty at Cal Poly have spoken out about the proposed changes in a variety of ways, including a postcard drive, submitting faculty comments to the California Faculty Association and collecting signatures for the National Women’s Studies Association’s open letter addressing the changes.
“I wanted students to know there are real life consequences to staying silent. There’s a cost to not being actively engaged in your country and community,” Women’s March SLO intern and communications senior Saba Kassa said.
“There’s a cost to not being actively engaged in your country and community”
Title IX became federal law in 1972 to ensure students and faculty received equal opportunity and equal access to school programs no matter their gender. Under the Obama Administration, the title became a means for colleges to investigate claims of sexual assault and harassment. In Cal Poly’s case, these claims are handled by the Office of Equal Opportunity.
Now the pendulum is swinging back, as U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed a policy guidance seeking to make changes to what can be investigated under Title IX and how to investigate these claims. These proposed changes are in addition to the new California law that went into effect Jan. 4 that has caused Cal Poly to halt Title IX investigations until a new investigative model is adopted. DeVos released her proposed Title IX guidance in Nov. 2018. Following the release, DeVos opened up a 60-day comment period to allow U.S. citizens to give input on the highly debated issue. The Cal Poly community has taken full advantage of this comment period with both student-run and faculty-run efforts to voice concern with the proposed changes.
“You can go through the changes one by one, but each decreases the likelihood that women will speak out, and that’s kind of what the Trump Administration wants,” Cal Poly Democrats Co-President and political science junior Ian Levy said of his main concern with the proposed changes.
Biomedical engineering senior Caroline Skae was among those to promote comment writing on campus. She received a $500 grant from Women’s March SLO to fund her work to inform the Cal Poly community on the proposed changes and help those who were interested to write a comment to secretary DeVos.
Skae said she was able to reach students through her booths at the UU Plaza, Dexter Lawn, the local Women’s March and the Planned Parenthood Generation Action event. The challenge for Skae was to encourage students who are not usually involved in political issues to understand the impact these changes could have on them, and inspire them to become involved.
By the end of the comment period, Skae had reached about 575 people through her booths, 200 via email and, along with Kassa, she helped submit more than 500 hand-written comments for DeVos’ consideration. Skae also helped three Cal Poly offices, including Associated Students, Inc. and the International Office, submit comments through her job at Safer.
The Cal Poly Democrats took a vested interest in opposing the changes, with club members accounting for around 50 of those hand-written comments.
In addition to individual written comments, students and faculty also had the opportunity to contribute through signing the National Women’s Studies Association’s open letter to DeVos. The letter was circulated by the Women and Gender Studies Department, according to Department Chair Jane Lehr. The letter received 603 signatures from universities all over the nation, 24 of which were from Cal Poly professors and students.
Faculty also had the opportunity to submit comments to Cal Poly’s chapter of the California Faculty Association that were then included in a report to the California State University (CSU) Chancellor’s Office, according to Lehr. These comments were taken into consideration when the CSU Chancellor’s Office released their public letter to DeVos and the Department of Education addressing specific issues within the proposed guidance.
DeVos has been a long time critic of the Obama Administration Title IX system and has made her intentions to change it known since becoming education secretary.
“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the ‘victim’ only creates more victims,” DeVos said in a 2017 speech on Title IX.
“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the ‘victim’ only creates more victims”
The sentiment that the current system does not protect the rights of those accused of sexual assault and harassment has been among the most vocalized by supporters of DeVos’s guidance.
While DeVos and supporters may view the changes as making the investigation process more fair, a common criticism of the proposed policies is that they increase protections for the accused at the expense of the accuser, a sentiment Lehr also expressed. Three major changes both the Cal Poly Democrats and Lehr have taken issue with are the introduction of a new standard of evidence, narrowing the scope of the Office of Equal Opportunity, and a stricter definition of sexual harassment.
The new guidance allows for universities to use a “clear and convincing” standard of evidence, in place of the “by a preponderance of the evidence” standard that is currently used in determining the validity of Title IX claims. A preponderance of the evidence requires a respondent to be found culpable if the facts of the claim make it more likely than not. With the clear and convincing standard, Title IX claims would require a higher level of proof in order to hold a respondent responsible.
Under the current standard, it is already unlikely that a respondent will face consequences. Of the 16 claims that were investigated by Cal Poly’s Office of Equal Opportunity during the 2017-18 academic year, four resulted in the respondent being held responsible, according to Cal Poly’s most recent Title IX report.
DeVos’s guidance would also result in the definition of sexual harassment being changed from “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 school’s education program or activity.”
According to Lehr, there is a concern that this change will require a severe catalyst in order for a claim to be investigated.
“It allows schools to investigate claims of sexual harassment only if it is causing the person that is being harassed to leave campus or leave the program,” Lehr said.
Under DeVos’ guidance, schools would only be required to investigate cases “that occurred within the school’s own ‘education program or activity.’” Both Levy and Lehr expressed concern that, when given the option to ignore off-campus incidents, the university would choose not to investigate these claims.
“To speak frankly, why would it make sense for a school to go out of their way to research this?” Levy said. “It doesn’t make sense, if a sexual assault happens off-campus, that a school would want to get involved. So if you are giving a school another option to just back off, most likely they are going to take it.”
Additionally, Lehr said she is worried the changes will lead to a more bureaucratic Office of Equal Opportunity — which handles Title IX claims — that is prone to delays. Lehr said she believes that if the changes are interpreted to prevent schools from taking interim measures during the investigation phase, “having the investigation go on for a substantially longer time could contribute to the further oppression of the person who reported.”
Despite Lehr’s position that these changes are largely negative, she said the amount of attention drawn to the issue is a positive result and that it has created space for discussion and policy research on the topic.
Mustang News reached out via email and phone to Santa Barbara-based Families Advocating Campus Equality to give equal coverage to the position in support of these changes. They have yet to respond to the request. Cal Poly College Republicans also did not immediately respond to interview requests.
The initial comment period ended Jan. 30 and resulted in 104,300 comments, according to NBC. In response to complaints about a Department of Education website glitch that prevented some people from commenting, the department temporarily accepted additional comments for a 24-hour period Friday, Feb. 15. If the guidance is enforced as is, many of the proposed changes will allow universities to decide how to implement them on their specific campus.
Cal Poly’s administrators, however, will not be making this decision on their own. According to Cal Poly Spokesperson Matt Lazier, the university will follow the CSU executive order to instruct how they should implement the changes on Cal Poly’s campus.
“At the end of the day, we don’t necessarily have control over the policy changes, but we do have control over the campus culture that we have and how we impact people going through these processes,” Skae said.