Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a proposed regulation on Title IX that would let schools off the hook for mishandling complaints of sexual violence.
The phrase “college sexual assault” evokes nightmarish experiences in Ivy-covered dorm rooms and fraternity housing, and that’s certainly where some of these assaults are perpetrated. But DeVos’ proposed rule would also have devastating impacts on community college students, who make up 42 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States.
The new rule would allow community colleges and other schools to disregard violence that occurs outside of their programs and activities, even when that violence interferes with a survivor’s education. That means that schools wouldn’t be required to investigate and provide support to a survivor who is assaulted in her off-campus apartment by a student from her biology class. This policy would have especially serious ramifications for community college students, many of whom do not live on campus or are enrolled part time. In fact, the college sexual assault crisis is particularly acute at commuter schools, where the environment around the immediate campus can be a high-risk area for sexual assault and stalking.
Schools wouldn’t be required to investigate and provide support to a survivor who is assaulted in her off-campus apartment by a student from her biology class.
In addition, the new policy would only require schools to investigate the most extreme forms of harassment and assault. It’s possible that a student who is fearful of attending a class as their stalker waited for them outside the door wouldn’t have rights under the changes proposed to Title IX. And as the American Civil Liberties Union notes, a school would only be required to act when the sexual violence or harassment completely denies a student access to education.
This would constitute a significant rollback of survivors’ rights: Right now, schools are expected to assist survivors when harassment interferes with or limits their access to education, for example, when a student is struggling to keep their grades up or is afraid to attend a class where their abuser is present. If DeVos gets her way, students would be forced to endure repeated and escalating levels of abuse without being able to ask their schools for help. So that student whose stalker waits for her outside class won’t be eligible for support from her school if she drops the class, or drops out of school entirely.
It’s easy to see how the proposed rule sets up community college students for failure. By the time that the Department of Education would require a school to intervene, a survivor might have had to already drop a prerequisite course that would allow them to complete their degree or matriculate to a 4-year institution. And even if a survivor graduates or transfers, the trauma of their school’s betrayal will linger. Experiencing institutional abuse can engender mistrust with subsequent academic institutions, and survivors may be less inclined to report at their new college.
It gets worse. The Department of Education would also forbid schools from removing perpetrators from spaces they share with survivors while an investigation is ongoing. As a result, survivors will bear the brunt of withdrawing from classes for fear of encountering their abusers on a regular basis. This will hit survivors at community colleges especially hard, because for students at those schools, course flexibility ― like night classes and part-time enrollment ― is critical to balancing classes with employment, child care and other commitments. If a student cannot find a different time slot for a class they share with an abuser, they may be compelled either to withdraw or re-enroll in a different semester. And Title IX, a law intended to protect survivors of sexual violence, will have been the reason for their educational setbacks.
Finally, DeVos’ proposal would incentivize community colleges to make it harder, not easier, to report sexual assault. That’s because under the proposed rule, the Department of Education will only find a school in violation of Title IX if their leadership had direct knowledge of the assault or harassment. This creates perverse incentives for schools to make it more difficult to report, and disincentivizes informing students of their rights. It’s already hard enough for students to get accurate information about their rights on campuses and the services available to them if they’re assaulted. When I arrived at my community college, the school provided only a short, general online training that barely scratched the surface of resources available on my campus. Throughout my time at the school, I did not know the identity of my Title IX Coordinator or how to report harassment ― and I was the President of the Women’s Student Association.
DeVos’ proposal would incentivize community colleges to make it harder, not easier, to report sexual assault.
When I escaped my abuser’s physical and psychological harm, he cut off the financial resources that would have enabled me to attend a four-year college. Community college was my only option, so I enrolled in a two-year associate’s degree program in New York. At that school, my friends experienced sexual violence akin to the much-publicized abuse at four-year institutions, and that abuse and institutional betrayal had severe consequences for my friends’ educations. But they were never greeted with the national outrage that was extended to survivors at schools like Columbia, an elite four-year school that’s just a few miles away. Community colleges afford critical educational opportunities to survivors of sexual assault, and they’re also rife with sexual violence and discrimination. And DeVos’ proposed rules would only make things worse.
Throughout her tenure as Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has been all too willing to deregulate higher education at the direct expense of students. These new Title IX rules are no different. Instead of protecting the civil rights of community college students, DeVos has opted to dismantle Title IX’s protections in favor of schools’ bottom lines. For survivors at community colleges, the cost of the new rule may be their educations.
The Department of Education is about to accept public comments on the proposed regulation. If you want to stand with survivors and prevent this rule from becoming law, you can join us here.
Jaslin Kaur is a Policy and Advocacy Organizer with Know Your IX, and a senior at City University of New York Hunter College.