As a society, we acknowledge students have a right to equal education. Sometimes we take those rights for granted until they need to be upheld. Now is one of those times. The law that protects most students in the United States is under threat — and we can do something about it.
Title IX protects all students, kindergarten through graduate school, who attend schools that receive federal funding. It protects students from sex discrimination at school — including sexual harassment and assault.
Our federal Department of Education issues guidance on how schools should respond to these issues. The Trump administration has proposed changes to Title IX guidance that attack every students’ right to a safe and discrimination-free education. These changes would make it even harder for sexual assault and harassment survivors to get help under the very law that meant to protect them.
The proposed changes encourage schools to act like courtrooms. As we well know, victims rarely see justice or safety from the criminal justice system. We like to think that the system works, but when it takes two trials and more than 50 women to come forward to convict Bill Cosby — it’s clear that we don’t want our schools to function that way.
If we encourage our schools to act like a criminal court, we are making getting an education that much harder for young survivors. Schools must protect the rights of all students. Title IX ensures that schools treat students the way we want our children to be treated.
There are many proposed changes and they are complicated. We are concerned about key changes that would:
Require schools to assume no harassment took place. While this might sound OK (it’s modeled after “innocent until proven guilty”), this change denies survivors key protections to make sure they have access to education while their situation is investigated by the school. For example, if someone was assaulted by another student in their class, a survivor needs the support of the school to change classes. Reasonable accommodations are key to student retention and well-being. Without them, schools would not be required to make sure a fourth-grader sexually assaulted by a sixth-grader wouldn’t be in the same lunchroom.
Change many procedural standards for college cases, including who can interview the victim and who has rights to appeal. This change requires college-age survivors be cross-examined by a person of the respondent’s choice. This could mean a survivor would be cross-examined by an angry parent or an attorney.
Change the definition of sexual harassment to harassment so severe that it denies a student educational opportunity. A sixth-grader could be harassed to the point of it already interfering with his education before the school is required to step in. If a student was harassed online or off-campus, the school would have no obligation to protect the harassed student.
Remove the response timeline requirement — and allow schools to delay taking action if the situation includes a criminal investigation. This could delay investigations for up to a year. Combined with the proposed rule where schools don’t have to provide any help or changes to a student’s school life to help them get through the investigation, this leaves students hanging in limbo with zero support.
As parents, community members and sexual assault advocates, we need to act to protect these core rights crucial to children’s education.
Title IX protects our children. But right now the letter of the law doesn’t mean anything unless we do something to protect it. The Trump administration is accepting public comments before the rules go into effect. We are urging people to submit a public comment by Jan. 28.
Please tell the Department of Education that you care about all students’ right to a safe and discrimination-free education. Tell them their focus should be on making sure all students have equal access to education and schools need Title IX to create a safe and accountable community.
Cara Courchesne is the communications director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. This OpEd mentions sexual assault, which may be hard for some readers. If you need support, please call 1-800-871-7741 to talk with an advocate. This service is free, private and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.