Expert: Tennessee colleges could see changes from new Title IX guidance on sexual assaults

We are not exactly sure how we should take this article since we are basically in agreement that the Department of Education, its rules, and distribution of funding should be eliminated in its entirety. Then it would be then the responsibility of the state of Tennessee and the private institutions of higher learning to develop and implement a workable program.


 

Rachel Ohm, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee  

As published in the Jackson Sun

Colleges and universities in Tennessee said Friday that it’s still early to say what an announcement from the U.S. Department of Education to revoke Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assaults might mean for their campuses, but they’ll be watching for further changes.

Meanwhile, an attorney specializing in Title IX compliance said the decision to revoke the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter will likely cause schools to take a second look at some of their policies, even if the changes aren’t as monumental as some had anticipated.

“I don’t think institutions are going to have to go back to the drawing board completely,” said Courtney Bullard, a Chattanooga-based attorney specializing in Title IX compliance. “I think it’s more of a tweaking of processes and procedures and looking at a couple things that institutions are going to have to revisit.”

On Friday, the department announced it will withdraw the 2011 letter, put in place as part of an effort to better protect victims of sexual assault, as well as a Q&A on Title IX Sexual Violence issued by the Obama administration in 2014.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said the letter offered an overly broad definition of sexual assault and has “failed too many students,” including those accused of misconduct.

A permanent replacement is still being worked out, but in the meantime DeVos on Friday issued interim guidance in the form of a Q&A document directing colleges on how to handle allegations of sexual misconduct.

The document directs colleges to reconsider the standards used to establish cases of sexual misconduct, suggesting that the previous guidance set too low of a standard, and also suggests more steps be taken to protect and inform those students accused of misconduct.

Tennessee schools still reviewing change

Both the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University have faced major Title IX investigations in recent years, yet officials at both schools have been reluctant to make firm statements for or against proposed changes to federal Title IX policy.

University of Tennessee Knoxville Chancellor Beverly Davenport, asked about Friday’s announcement at a fundraising campaign event on campus, said she hadn’t had a chance to review the new guidelines yet.

When asked what she thought of the 2011 letter being withdrawn, Davenport said that, “I will tell you that the University of Tennessee is going to be a national model (for Title IX) and we already are. We are going to ensure people are educated and that we can take care of those students who need our services. Today is to celebrate the campaign.”

In a statement, Vanderbilt University stated its commitment to providing a safe campus and said Friday’s announcement “should not stand in the way of our ability to fight the serious problem of campus sexual assault nor do we anticipate changing our approach and policies based on it.”

“We are closely monitoring the ongoing review process,” Vanderbilt said. “We will engage as appropriate in that process to allow us to best deter conduct and actions that create or contribute to a hostile environment for any of our students.”

Meanwhile, Rick Locker, a spokesman for the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s community college system, also said Friday that the board has not yet had a chance to review changes.

“We’ll just have to wait and review whatever it is they’ve issued,” Locker said. “I don’t know any of the details yet.”

Expert: Dear Colleague letter did help elevate Title IX policy 

Bullard, meanwhile, said that while it is early and the department is still working out how it will permanently address the issue of campus sexual assault, it is likely that colleges may have to make some adjustments under the new guidance.

Those items include looking at the standards by which universities decide to investigate cases of sexual misconduct, how to accommodate those accused of sexual misconduct and the time frame in which they conduct their investigations.

The “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011 was instrumental in raising awareness around the issue of campus sexual assault, according to Bullard, who said it spurred changes on many campuses, like getting them to dedicate Title IX staff and offices and create programming around Title IX education and sexual assault prevention.

While compliance has been a challenge for some schools, particularly smaller schools with fewer resources, “I think on the whole, institutions felt the (2011) guidance was a good thing,” she said.

Earlier this month, DeVos pointed to several examples of what she called the failures of current Title IX policy, including an instance at the University of Tennessee where a student’s quiz answer was the basis for a sexual harassment claim last fall.

But Bullard said Friday that not all of those instances cited by DeVos are good examples of where the previous recommendations had failed. Instead, she said some were a case of universities not properly implementing the recommendations.

“Based on her speech alone, it’s like she was broad brushing it and taking a couple instances of where institutions misapplied the guidance, or what have you, and gave the impression that this is a huge problem and everyone’s due process rights everywhere are being violated,” Bullard said. “I think that ignited a lot of fear in campuses about what this guidance was going to say.

“It’s a very complex issue, and when she sits there and says the tribunals on campus that hear these cases are ‘kangaroo courts,’ that’s like a slap in the face to campus administrators everywhere who are working really hard to take these matters seriously and follow the guidance that’s been put out there.”

Tennessean staff writer Adam Tamburin contributed to this report.

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