Mayor Walsh and representatives from Boston colleges speak out against proposed changes to Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational settings
BOSTON – Wednesday, January 16, 2019 – Mayor Martin J. Walsh today announced he will submit public comment to the U.S. Department of Education, challenging the proposed changes to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational settings receiving federal funding. Mayor Walsh was joined by Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College, Marisa Kelly, President of Suffolk University, Pam Eddinger, President of Bunker Hill Community College, Debra Robbin, Executive Director of Jane Doe Inc., and Katie Mitrano, Student Body President, UMass Boston and Boston Regional Outreach Lead, Every Voice.
The proposed rule changes would affect how educational institutions define sexual misconduct, when schools become obligated to address sexual misconduct, and the process for determining whether someone has committed sexual harassment. Specifically, the proposed changes would narrow the definition of sexual harassment in educational settings, establish a filing and hearing process that places burden on the survivor, restrict the evidentiary standard rule, and reduce ability for schools to properly address sexual harassment and assault.
“Boston is home to 200,000 students, and these rule changes would have a devastating impact on students who deserve to be safe, supported, and treated with respect,” said Mayor Walsh. “Nothing should stand in the way of students being able to receive a great education. I want to make sure Secretary DeVos and Donald Trump hear it loud and clear: We believe survivors. We believe women. And we believe they deserve more support, respect, and compassion — not less.”
Sexual harassment is currently defined by the Department of Education as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” and the proposed regulations would change the definition to conduct that is “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” Additionally, the proposed changes would shift the threshold that officials use to determine if an assault claim requires a response from school officials from the “preponderance of evidence” standard set under the Obama administration to a “clear and convincing evidence” standard. These changes narrow the definition of what is considered sexual harassment, and raise the standard of evidence for proving sexual assault occurred.
“The proposed changes to Title IX roll back every best practice we recognize in handling sexual discrimination, harassment and assault,” said District Attorney Rachael Rollins. “We should be encouraging survivors to come forward, not limiting their reporting options. We should be supporting survivors, not narrowing their protections. Title IX is a critically important legal protection for people subjected to discrimination and harassment based on gender and sexual assault. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office stands ready to accept reports from, and support, anyone who believes they have been subjected to any type of violence, including all forms of sexual assault.”
National data indicate that 27 percent of college women have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact, nearly half of grade 7-12 students experienced sexual harassment in the past academic year, and nearly two thirds of college students report experiencing sexual harassment.
The Department of Education announced the proposed changes in November, though they have not yet gone into effect. The public may comment on these changes until January 28, 2018. Over 53,000 comments have already been submitted. The Department of Education is required by law to review the comments and address them before publishing the final rules.
The proposed standards would require schools’ Title IX grievance processes to allow for a live hearing, which includes cross-examination. During cross-examination, the respondents “advisor” would be permitted to publicly question the survivor’s experience, memory, and sexual behavior so long as the questions about sexual behavior are “to prove that someone other than the respondent committed the conduct alleged.”
Additionally, educational institutions would be required to address an incident of sexual assault or harassment only if it is reported directly to “an official…who has authority to institute corrective measures.” In K-12 settings, a teacher is considered such an official, but this is not the case in collegiate settings. Additionally, the proposed regulations limit the purview of Title IX complaints to “conduct that occurs within its education program or activity” which does not include any off-campus areas used by students, including housing.
Boston Public Schools remains committed to preventing and addressing sexual misconduct and their policies will not change. The administration will continue to respond immediately and thoroughly when students come forward and Boston Public Schools will continue to build a healthy culture where students feel safe.
“Betsy DeVos’s reform to Title IX is dangerous and does not adequately protect survivors of sexual assault or sexual harassment,” said City Councilor At-Large, Annissa Essaibi-George. “Our colleges and universities should serve as a beacon of safety for survivors. One of the most dangerous aspects of the reform would guarantee the accused the right to cross-examine the accuser. Schools would have limited responsibility to investigate incidents that take place off campus. In Boston, we know that a majority of our college students don’t live in university housing. These new changes would, without a doubt, affect our Boston students.”
“The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM) commends Mayor Walsh and his administration for its leadership on such an important issue,” said Richard Doherty, President of AICUM. “AICUM stands with Mayor Walsh in communicating to Secretary DeVos that our number one goal is ensuring the continued well-being of students, faculty, and staff on college campuses throughout Boston and all of Massachusetts. Our member institutions are dedicated to providing a learning and working environment which is free from discrimination and harassment, including on the basis of sex.”
“Some of the proposed changes to Title IX are not only concerning for survivors and allies but would have the effect of converting college campuses into criminal courtrooms that prioritize cross examination and re-victimization,” said Gretchen Manning, Acting Executive Officer and Deputy Executive Officer of the Massachusetts Community Colleges Executive Office. “We applaud Mayor Walsh for his leadership and attention to this issue and look forward to partnering with him to protect victims.”
“Title IX is an important tool for getting schools to respond to sexual violence and to put systems in place that make sexual harassment and assault less likely to happen,” said Gina Scaramella, Executive Director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. “Changes to the regulations proposed by the Trump Administration attempt to undo vital progress that has been made over the past several decades. These changes will make it more difficult for survivors of sexual assault and harassment to come forward and get the support they deserve from their schools and universities. We join together with survivors, the Mayor’s Office, and organizations and advocates throughout Greater Boston in opposing these changes and recommending alternatives grounded in best practice.”
Mayor Walsh encourages anyone who would like to weigh in on this issue to submit their own public comment at regulations.gov before the January 28 deadline. Comments should be concise, and express the author’s views using specific and well-reasoned examples, including how the proposed rules might impact the author personally.