By: Julie Pike, Editor-in-Chief
Working under interim guidance from the Department of Education, university Title IX coordinators are waiting to hear how new regulations are going to change procedures for schools in handling sexual assault or harassment reports.
Last September, the Department of Education put forth an interim guidance document, overturning two documents from 2011 and 2014 which “reminded institutions that Title IX also applied to sexual harassment and sexual assault,” said Sarah Holmes, Assistant Dean of Students and Deputy Title IX Coordinator at USM.
Following that, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education would be creating new regulations and policies for sexual misconduct.
“What they said was that those documents were an overreach,” Holmes said, “that the Department of Education did too much.” Holmes said that Secretary DeVos came out and said that the whole system was failing everyone, failing survivors and failing institutions of education.
“I don’t necessarily agree with because I think that the 2011 and 2014 documents did a lot to center survivors into the equation and did a lot to bring a trauma informed approach in,” Holmes said.
The proposed regulations were set to be completed last April, Holmes said, and then got pushed back to late September. However, they still have not been released.
The New York Times obtained a draft of these proposed rules in early September, showcasing future changes that may come.
Holmes said that while the changes wouldn’t go into effect until mid 2019 or into 2020, there is already speculation in terms of how things may change for sexual assault reporting on college campuses.
First, Holmes said, is that the regulations seem to narrow the definition of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
“It sounds like the impetus behind this is to limit the number of investigations that there are,” Holmes said. “That means, both investigations on the campus level, and also so that the department of civil rights and education won’t have as many complaints to investigate themselves.”
The New York Times also reported that the Department of Education estimated that the changes would save $327.7 to 408.9 million over the next decade.
“If the purpose is to prevent sexual assault, and to address it when it happens,” Holmes said, “why are we talking about saving money when the financial cost of sexual violence is so high?”
Another possible change that concerns Holmes is that the university would only be held responsible for investigating formal complaints.
“My job is to help and support students who want to move forward, file a complaint and need some form of justice… but these new regulations are saying that if we don’t have a formal complaint we don’t have to investigate anything,” said Holmes. “I can’t compel a victim to be involved in an investigation, it’s beyond my scope, it’s also not fair.”
Holmes speculated that the changes might also mean that the university is not responsible for investigating incidents that occur off campus.
USM Public Safety recently released the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report from 2015-2017. In this report it states that seven reports of sexual assault were made in 2017 on the Gorham campus, including residential halls. However, Holmes said that she spoke with close to 35 students who experienced some form of sexual violence that year. There were no reports made on the Portland or Lewiston/Auburn campus.
While these proposed changes are still uncertain, the interim guidance document from last year changed two things for the University of Maine System, said Holmes, including allowing no fixed timeline and informal resolutions.
Under the previous administration, institutions had to investigate any reports of sexual assault or harassment within 60 to 90 days. Now with the new guidance, schools have no fixed date to complete investigations by.
Allowing informal resolutions in sexual assault cases, Holmes said, gives survivors the opportunity to not go through a formal process.
“It provides us with a little bit of flexibility for survivors that want some level of justice but aren’t in a place to go through a full process,” Holmes said.
For now, university administrators, Holmes included, are waiting to see the new regulations put forth by the Department of Education.
Once those are released there will be a 60 day comment period, where anyone can submit comments or opinions, and the department is required to review all feedback. After that period, the Office of Civil Rights will take three to 12 months to publish the final regulations, and colleges and universities will have to adjust their policies to align with any new regulations.