Days before the close of the public comment period for the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed Title IX regulations, dozens of students across Yale College and Yale’s professional schools participated in comment-writing sessions on Thursday to provide feedback on the DeVos administration’s new rules for how universities respond to sexual harassment and assault.
The new regulations, which would dramatically change how Yale and other schools adjudicate sexual misconduct, are currently subject to a 60-day public comment period, which ends on Jan. 30. Approximately 25 Yale College students attended a comment writing event hosted by the Reproductive Justice Action League at Yale and the American Civil Liberties Union of Yale on Thursday evening. Title IX Working Groups at the School of Management and Law School also hosted information session and comment-writing parties on Thursday, which drew around 45 students total, according to the SOM Assistant Director of Academic Affairs and Student Life Kit Heely and Alyssa Peterson LAW ’19.
“We voted this administration into office, and now we have a Secretary of Education who has proposed rules that potentially pose direct harm to students,” said Kathy Julik-Heine SOM ’20, who helped organize the SOM’s information session. “[Comments] have the potential to actually shape the law, and the hope would be that they shape the law in a way that doesn’t pose such a direct harm to students.”
Students at the Yale College comment-writing session expressed concern with many of the key changes proposed in the Title IX regulations, which will replace the “Dear Colleague Letter” issued by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2011. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the letter in 2017. If enacted, the proposed rules would narrow the definition of sexual harassment and only obligate universities to investigate formal complaints of sexual misconduct. Whereas Obama’s letter urged schools to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard when adjudicating sexual misconduct cases, the new regulations allow schools to choose between the lower standard or a “clear and convincing evidence” standard. Universities would also only be required to investigate incidents that happened on campus or within a school’s educational programs or activities.
At the SOM information session, University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler gave an overview of Yale’s Title IX resources, and Peterson, who also works for the Title IX advocacy organization Know Your IX, presented advocates’ concerns about the proposed regulations, Julik-Heine said. Civil rights groups such as Know Your IX and the ACLU have denounced the proposed rules for weakening protections for survivors and potentially deterring students from reporting sexual misconduct.
In an email to the News, Spangler said that Yale’s Title IX office has been carefully reviewing the proposed regulations in the context of Yale’s existing policies, procedures and programs, which “were developed not only to be compliant with Title IX but also to reflect shared community values.”
“In any event, as we look to the future, we will remain steadfast in our commitment to address and prevent sexual misconduct at Yale, to maintain effective and fair processes for reviewing complaints, and to cultivate a campus culture that is inclusive, supportive, and respectful–where everyone can thrive,” Spangler wrote in an email to the News. “And I am hopeful that our efforts to realize that commitment will continue to be shaped by the broad and active and invaluable engagement of the Yale community.”
The proposed regulations could pose a major threat to many of Yale’s own adjudication procedures. The new rules would require schools to allow cross-examination of both complainants and respondents in live hearings, which Yale does not currently permit.
Yale currently uses the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to adjudicate sexual misconduct cases, which is mandated by Connecticut state law. But the federal regulations may overrule existing state laws, which Peterson said remains an “unsettled legal question”. Under the new system, schools would also be required to apply the same evidentiary standard to all disciplinary procedures, including adjudicatory processes for sexual misconduct, academic dishonesty and racial discrimination.
The University is currently working with national and state professional organizations to review the proposed rules and to determine “what content and venue for comment are most appropriate,” according to Spangler.
On Thursday, the Association of American Universities — an association of 60 leading American research institutions, including Yale — released its comment regarding the proposed rules. The AAU criticized the Department of Education’s “one-size-fits-all approach” that ignores the diversity of higher institutions, and claimed that the new regulations represent an “unprecedented infringement on universities’ autonomy and expertise.”
University President Peter Salovey sits on the board of the AAU.
The AAU requested in its comment that the DOE remove requirements that schools permit cross-examination, appoint advisors for both parties and apply the same standard of evidence across all disciplinary processes. The AAU also urged the DOE to clarify whether universities may investigate behavior that falls outside its definition of sexual harassment in its regulations.
Julik-Heine told the News that organizers gave attendees an overview of significant changes proposed in the regulations, but students who attended the SOM session ultimately had autonomy to craft their own individualized responses. While the Department of Education is legally obligated to respond to public feedback, Peterson emphasized that unique comments that include data and offer alternatives to the proposed rules would be most influential. According to Peterson, the DOE must properly explain its own data and reasoning in response to public comments, and if the department fails to properly justify its rules, a court may strike down the regulations.
At the comment-writing event hosted by the ACLU of Yale and RALY, Peterson criticized DeVos’ proposal for inflating concerns about a “due process crisis,” which Peterson said does not reflect the reality on college campuses. In her Nov. 16 statement accompanying the proposed regulations, DeVos emphasized that the new rules would restore the due process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct, which she has claimed were undermined under Obama-era guidelines.
Yale College Council President Saloni Rao ’20 told the News that YCC representatives met with Title IX administrators to discuss the proposed regulations, adding that the Title IX Office “went into a bit of an overdrive” as the new regulations have the potential to alter Yale’s current policies. Rao added that since the group is a nonpartisan organization, the YCC decided to raise awareness of other groups’ comment-writing sessions by publicizing them online, rather than taking a stance on the rules themselves.
“There are differently politics that are intertwined in these regulations,” Rao said. “We decided that the best course of action was to publicize existing workshops that aim to dig into these new regulations and inform students of what these regulations are saying and how to write an effective comment.
The DOE extended the original public comment period, which was previously set to end Jan. 28, after its website experienced technical issues during the federal shutdown.
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