How will these changes impact Western’s community?
By Ivy Munyon
Amidst a global pandemic, an economic crisis and the pressure of bringing students back to campus in the fall, Western has found itself with yet another thing on its plate.
On May 6, the United States Department of Education released new regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This is an act that originally determined that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excused from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
The updated provisions are a 2,000-page document that includes significant changes to the university’s original Title IX policy and goes into effect on Aug. 14.
“At a time when our nation is still grappling with the far-reaching impacts of sexual harassment and violence, the Department of Education’s action seeks to reverse hard-fought social and policy gains. Imposing these new rules in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students and staff are already dealing with stress and anxiety, is very troubling,” said Western President Sabah Randhawa in a statement that was released concerning these policies. Randhawa also released a summarized version of the changes in May after the Department of Education’s initial announcement.
Title IX was originally implemented with the intention to protect college students and employees from discrimination, harassment and sexual violence.
If such incidents occur, students and employees alike can file a complaint through the campus’ Title IX office. This initiates a series of procedures that investigate the issue and seek resolution.
Title IX rulings are different than criminal prosecutions in a few ways. One of the most notable being that the outcome from Title IX cases tend to be sanctions rather than criminal sentencing. Sanctions can include expulsion, suspension, loss of credits or tuition.
Hearings rely on administrators as judgement makers rather than actual judges, and used to discourage cross-examination. Though the latter is changing.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos first introduced her plans to change the Title IX policies in September of 2018. This triggered conversation around the country about what these new policies would look like and how it would impact students and staff alike.
Notable changes to the final rule include that Title IX will no longer cover any incidents that take place during study abroad programs or in an off-campus living situation. It also redefines both sexual and racial harassment as “severe, pervasive or objectively offensive.”
This is different than the Title IX guidance provided by the Obama administration in 2011. That guidance urged schools to handle harassment matters before the situation turns severe.
Another significant change of policy is that the new regulations will enforce cross-examination hearings.
Interim Title IX Coordinator Melynda Huskey said, “cross-examination wasn’t previously required. Questioning was a more accurate way to describe our previous process. Questioning was permitted, but not required. One of the biggest changes here, is that if a witness or party isn’t willing to be cross-examined, none of their evidence can be used in determining responsibility.”
“These new definitions and standards will make it easier for single-time offenses to get swept under the rug,” said a student who filed a Title IX complaint at Western in 2018. This student wanted to speak anonymously due to the personal, and at times, traumatic, aspects of filing. Retaliation from the respondent in her case continues to be a looming fear.
These changes, alongside the quick timeline to implement them, has incited concern amongst students and faculty members alike.
Huskey said that ordinarily, community input is prioritized before any major revisions to Western’s policies and procedures occur. However, that can not happen with the tight timeline they are operating under.
“Right now, we are implementing an emergency rule so that we will be in compliance with federal guidance by the 14th. But our intention is that when students and faculty are back on campus, we will conduct a more inclusive process of working through all these changes so that campus can be informed, have the ability to participate, provide feedback and be considered as stakeholders in this process,” said Huskey.
The student who filed a complaint back in 2018 felt that Western’s previous Title IX complaint process was challenging, making these new changes seem especially concerning.
“I get nervous about these new regulations,” said the student. “It was already a very intimidating experience for me. ... I can’t imagine how these changes may deter future victims from seeking resolution.”
Huskey wants to assure students that “even though we may have to dismiss a claim under Title IX, that doesn’t mean that we can’t pursue a claim through the code of conduct using other legal and policy measures.”
Consultation and Sexual Assault Support (CASAS)is another resource on campus for victims of sexual crimes that is separate from Title IX. Through this resource, students can receive emotional, academic, safety, and reporting support.
Western is in the process of hiring a new Title IX Coordinator, said Huskey, who currently holds the interim position.