Fed gov’t reinforces Title IX

As Yale faces federal scrutiny over whether its handling of sexual misconduct violates Title IX, the country’s top officials are taking a harder line against sexual harassment in schools.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a clarified set of guidelines explaining what Title IX requires of America’s schools in an event at the University of New Hampshire Monday morning, opening a national dialogue about sexual culture on college campuses. The announcement — which is not related to a federal investigation of Yale’s Title IX compliance announced last Friday, Duncan said — marked the first time the federal government has elucidated exactly what it expects of its schools under Title IX since the provision was put in place in 1972.

“When it comes to sexual abuse, it’s quite simple: No means no,” Biden said during his hour-long speech to a sold-out crowd at the ticketed event. “No means no if you’re drunk or you’re sober; no means no if you’re in bed in a dorm or on a street.”

To help schools understand their obligations, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights sent a 19-page “Dear Colleague” letter to all school districts, colleges and universities that receive federal funding — of which Yale is one. The letter explicitly states the government’s expectations under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of gender and mandates equal opportunity for all students.

Hannah Zeavin ’12, one of 16 cosignatories on the Title IX complaint, said she appreciates Biden’s effort to shine light on collegiate sexual culture.

“I was deeply touched by his speech,” she said. “[Sexual harassment] is a reality for a lot of people. Title IX is great — in its 33 words, it’s protecting a lot of people.”

Michael Gregory, an expert on education law at Harvard Law School, highlighted three key areas the guidelines are attempting to clarify in an interview with the News Monday. The guidelines place sexual assault under the umbrella of sexual harassment, affirm a school’s responsibility to address sexual harassment and clarify the amount of proof a school must collect before it can discipline a student for sexual harassment.

Often, Gregory said, school administrators feel that sexual harassment cases are out of their hands once they turn them over to law enforcement agencies. Even when they do pursue internal punishments in such cases, he added, schools may overstate the burden of proof required under Title IX.

“Schools are supposed to utilize the standard called ‘preponderance of the evidence,’” under which it is more likely than not that the harassment in question occurred, Gregory said, adding that this need only amount to a 51 percent certainty that a student has committed sexual harassment.

Although Biden’s announcement came only days after Yale complainants announced that the OCR would investigate Yale, Duncan said the event had been scheduled months before.

As Biden spoke in New Hampshire, prominent feminist writer Naomi Wolf ’84, who accused Sterling Professor of the Humanities Harold Bloom GRD ’56 of sexual harassment in a controversial New York Magazine piece in 2004, appeared on the Early Show to discuss the Title IX complaint.

During her interview, Wolf claimed that Yale’s violations of Title IX run even deeper than the new complaint indicates.

“For at least two decades, Yale has been systematically covering up much more serious crimes than the ones the students can even identify,” Wolf told CBS reporter Erica Hill Monday. “What they do is they use the sexual harassment grievance procedure in a very cynical way, purporting to be supporting victims but actually using the process to stonewall victims, to isolate them and to protect the University.”

One in 5 college women and 6 percent of college men in the United States are victims of sexual abuse, the “Dear Colleague” letter states.

Jordi Gassó contributed reporting.

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