By OLIVIA BRIDGES
At UMW, the reporting rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment have been increasing exponentially since 2015. Amidst this upward trend, at the end of last semester, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed changes to Title IX that would require universities to apply basic due process protections for students.
The application of due process to Title IX cases would mean there would be presumption of innocence for the accused. Schools would be required to hold a live hearing with cross-examination. Additionally, in order to ensure impartial decisions, schools would be barred from using a single investigator or an investigator-only model.
“Throughout this process, my focus was, is, and always will be on ensuring that every student can learn in a safe and nurturing environment,” said DeVos on the Department of Education’s website. “Every survivor of sexual violence must be taken seriously, and every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.”
While the proposed changes have yet to be implemented, they could potentially deter students from reporting. Currently, more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). Sexual violence is not reported for a number of reasons such as fear of not being believed, fear of retaliation and victim blaming.
“I’m personally incredibly against it,” said senior Matthew Allocca, English major and Teal Peer Educator, of the proposed changes. Allocca said the cross examination requirement would make an already traumatic situation all the more stressful. “You’ve had your attonomy taken from you, you’re in a situation with no agency and now you have to come forward and talk about it and a situation where there is cross-examination…This will just make it even more difficult for people.”
Allocca is worried that because these changes have been proposed, people may be hesitant to report sexual assault cases.
“I think if people were to hear about it and hear about the proposed policy changes, I think it might stop people now from coming forward, even though it is just proposed and not written into law,” said Allocca.
Since the proposal of the changes to Title IX, the reporting rates of sexual assault and sexual harassment seem to be unaffected; however the final numbers will not be released until the federally mandated annual security report comes out. It is too early to tell if the proposed changes will have any impact on reporting rates.
“Unfortunately we live in a world today that things happen, so trying to find that balance and then when the annual security reports became federally mandated, they put teeth into it where federal funding can be withheld from the universities if they did not comply with the information,” said UMW police chief Michael Hall.
According to the annual security reports from 2015 to 2017, reporting rates of sex offenses, domestic violence and dating violence have been increasing. Additionally, Hall said he is aware that the number in the annual security report likely does not reflect the actual numbers of sexual assault and harassment on campus.
Hall stated the purpose of the proposal is to ensure that false reporting does not go unnoticed. Cases of false reporting of sexual assault typically make up about 2 to 10 percent of all reports according to the NSVRC – which is comparable to rates of false reports of other crimes. He also wants to ensure that campus is a place where victims feel embraced by the university so they will step forward.
“So now we’re in that stage of trying to come back to center, so that both parties are given a fair representation to find the truth, the facts of what took place,” said Hall.
According to the crime log at Brent House, there have been eight reported incidents of sex-based crimes within the current academic year. The reports range from sexual display to statutory rape; out of the eight reported instances, six of the reports were either sexual assault or sexual harassment.
“I looked at numbers this year, and they were elevated, but we looked at nationwide that the numbers were elevated. We attributed that to more awareness on campus,” said Hall. “I think the #MeToo movement brought more awareness to the nation.”
According to the crime log, the depositions of two of the reports stated the victim did not want to report or declined prosecution and were referred to Title IX.
It is unclear if and when the proposed regulations will be put into law; however, if it were to pass, it would be the first change to Title IX since it was implemented in 1972. The proposed changes to Title IX differ from the Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Violence under President Obama’s administration.
According to the Department of Education website, the Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Violence was introduced April 4, 2011. The purpose of the letter is to remind schools of their responsibility to take the necessary steps in a timely manner after a case of sexual violence is reported and outlines the school’s obligations under Title IX.
However, as of Sept. 7, 2017, DeVos announced in a press release that the Department of Education is withdrawing the Dear Colleague Letter on Sexual Violence.
After the proposed changes to Title IX were proposed, there was an open comment period from Nov. 29 to Jan. 28. However, due to the government shutdown, the open comment period was extended to February. The Office of Civil Rights is currently reviewing the proposal. If the proposal is passed, it would become a law and be implemented at a federal level. In this event, the UMW Title IX Office will send out an official email to the university community.
According to the Department of Education’s website, the proposed rule speaks of the importance of supportive measures such as academic course adjustments, counseling, no-contact orders, dorm room reassignments, leaves of absence and class schedule changes. The supportive measures are in place make sure students have fair and safe access to education whether or not they file a formal complaint.
“I feel like people tend to not report things because steps are taken to alleviate a victim’s stress but it doesn’t seem to last for very long. There’s also still a stigma tied to people who report,” said English major, senior Sammie Meyers.
Stefanie Lucas-Waverly was previously the Title IX Investigator, but as of the week of March 25 has taken over Marissa Miller’s position as Title IX Coordinator. According to Lucas-Waverly, UMW has yet to change any of its policies. Additionally, Lucas-Waverly states it is hard to say what the impact will be as they are currently in a waiting period. She had no comments on reporting rates and the impact of the proposal.
“If that happend to me, God forbid, I would not even go to [the Office of Title IX],” said sophomore fine arts major Gabrielle Campbell. “I’d just go to the police because I would not want to be interrogated…Cross-examination seems to be extremely aggressive if you’re a victim.”