Following Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ vow to replace the current “failed system” for addressing campus sexual assault, the future of reporting procedures for sexual misconduct at Yale remains slightly murky. However, both student and administrative responses indicate that the two groups are searching for solutions while schools await further instruction from the federal government.
Obama-era campus sexual assault reform centers around a 2011 Title IX–related dear colleague letter in which former Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined the expectations for how all American colleges and universities should address sexual violence on campus. Recommendations included lowering the standard of proof in sexual assault cases, setting time limits on responses to allegations and limiting the accused’s right to cross-examine the complainant. The Office for Civil Rights enforced the changes by threatening to withdraw federal funds from any school failing to meet the new standard.
Students who advocate for a better sexual climate on campus responded to DeVos’ announcement with shock and disappointment, while administrators reaffirmed their commitment to handling issues of sexual assault fairly.
“We thought that things were going to get worse after Trump was elected, but honestly this is the worst case scenario,” said Helen Price ’18, co-founder and co-director of Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale. “Perhaps what’s really disturbing is that we’ve had a lot of survivors come to us who are unsure about what’s going on. Yale hasn’t been very helpful, and they’re asking us if it’s going to be the case that if I don’t report now I’ll never have the chance because DeVos changes the rules.”
Price noted that DeVos’ plans, in the worst case, are reminiscent of the Safe Campus Act, which was proposed in Congress in the summer of 2015 and would have required that sexual assault survivors report their cases directly to the police rather than to the University. By the fall of 2015, however, support for the bill had ebbed due to outside criticism. According to Price, the bill’s passage would have been particularly egregious for people of color as well as transgender and gender nonbinary individuals who are at a disproportionate risk of sexual assault and abuse from the police.
University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler sent an email to the Yale student body on the same day as DeVos’ speech, reassuring the student body that the University remains “steadfast in its commitment to address allegations of misconduct promptly and fairly.”
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the News that he agrees with the contents of Spangler’s email and will follow her guidance on how to address new policies announced by the Department of Education. Chun noted that amendments to Title IX policy over the years have increased awareness of sexual assault on campus and of the resources available to those impacted.
“During my time as head of Berkeley I definitely saw the evolution of this, so I do think we’re in a better place,” Chun said. “No doubt the safety of our students is paramount.”
Price said USAY hopes that Yale will pledge to maintain its current reporting procedures, “in defiance of DeVos’ changes if necessary.” Because the Department of Education will no longer be investigating schools for the improper handling of sexual assault cases, Price added, USAY also urges Yale to set up an independent panel to ensure sexual assault cases are handled fairly on all sides. She added that she and USAY were disappointed by Spangler’s lack of specific future plans.
Still, some of Yale’s initiatives to promote a better sexual climate — such as the Consent and Communication Educators program — predate the Obama-era policies that DeVos has vowed to end. Patrick Sullivan ’18, a project coordinator for the CCEs, said the program has never hinged on a federal mandate and will continue to exist regardless of DeVos’ proposals.
“The CCE program was developed over the course of 2009 and 2010, well before the 2011 dear colleague letter was released,” said Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd ’90, whose office runs the CCE program. “The details of OCR guidance are important overall, but don’t have much direct impact on the CCEs’ work.”
In an email to the News, Spangler did not detail any specific plans to deal with DeVos’ proposals, should they materialize, but noted that the administration will rely on continued input from the Yale community moving forward.
“Regardless of those proposals, we remain dedicated to upholding our shared values and to maintaining a safe, respectful, and inclusive campus,” Spangler said.
Sullivan said the one silver lining in DeVos’ speech is the opportunity to comment publicly on how American universities should better approach the issue of sexual misconduct. In her Sept. 7 speech, DeVos said that her office will launch a “transparent notice-and-comment process” to incorporate public feedback into a new system.
“That’s something that I think the CCEs are excited about and I hope that what happens on our campus is that there is a response,” Sullivan said. “Whether or not they listen is another question, but you can go on now and actually make a public comment, and I would hope that students feel empowered to do that.”
The CCE program currently consists of 49 sophomores, juniors and seniors.
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