Title IX Undergoes Changes Yet Again

Across America, rallies took place protesting the Title IX changes made by the Trump Administration.

Across America, rallies took place protesting the Title IX changes made by the Trump Administration.

Lauren Andrews, Editor

The Biden administration has renewed Title IX to include all sexual orientations and gender identities when referring to the term “sex,” reasserting that transgender, non-binary, and other individuals who don’t identify with their assigned sex from birth are once again federally protected from discrimination. 

The Department of Education is also currently drafting new regulations for hearings regarding complaints that reach the level of Title IX complaints.They have a Q&A document (the July 2021 guidance) that instructs schools on how to handle complaints until the official revision of Title IX is released later in 2022. 

One such guidance allows institutions to be formally notified of instances of assault through designated staff members on campus. Before, schools could only take action when informed by their Title IX coordinator. This change will make it easier to recognize and report complaints of sexual assault and misconduct.

The Department of Education is also working to redefine what constitutes harassment, moving away from the more extreme and particular Trump-era definition.

While there are still some grey areas in terms of what decisions the Biden administration and DOE are going to make regarding Title IX, the changes so far have been promising.

We live in a world where our legal right to safety in public spaces is contested with each new presidential administration, and many people are currently lacking this protection right now.

Title IX, the legal policy that protects people from discrimination based on sex in institutions that receive federal funding, changes every four to eight years when a new president is elected. Changes occur because the definitive terms in Title IX can be interpreted differently, which allows the processes to be altered with each administration. This seems minuscule until we understand the power of words in legislation.

Under the Obama administration, the clarification was made that when Title IX says that discrimination based on sex is prohibited by law, “sex” also included gender identity. What this indicated was that individuals who don’t identify by their biologically assigned sex (such as transgender and non-binary individuals) were offered protection under Title IX. This is important for a society that is still working to understand the existence of transgender and non-binary people; policies and legislation need to be written clearly to verify that those individuals are included and are protected against discrimination. 

It’s also extremely important to consider what the social implications are when we define “sex” one way and not another. 

“I do think that this has a very large impact on society and on the acceptance of people across the gender identity spectrum,” Dr. Erin McAdams, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Pre-law Program, said. “This will impact transgender individuals, in particular, ranging from which bathrooms are used in schools all the way to the fact that if somebody sexually harasses somebody because of their gender identity, the victim of that assault, harassment, or discrimination doesn’t have any protection.”

This means that transgender, non-binary, and other individuals who do not identify with their assigned sex do not have legal protection under Title IX. This also sends a message that these individuals’ identities aren’t valid, which perpetuates a lack of acceptance of those on the gender identity spectrum.

Another change made to Title IX under the Trump administration was the hearing process for Title IX complaints. It’s now required that the accuser and accused both have live hearings with cross-examinations. This change strongly encourages the “innocent until proven guilty” approach at hearings, and it stresses protecting the accused as well as the accuser. The ripple effects deter people from reporting and lead to an overall decrease in reports.

It’s difficult to say at this point if the more stringent requirements will lead to fewer cases or if more clear guidance on informal resolution processes may actually increase or maintain the current number of reports.” Drew Peterson, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life, said. “Many students over the years have hoped to have some resolution to the situation they were in but did not want to proceed with a full hearing for various reasons.”

It’s possible that many survivors of sexual assault or misconduct wouldn’t want to have to experience this type of hearing – it could be very overwhelming and traumatizing. However, as Peterson stated, it’s difficult to gauge the effect of a more stringent hearing process on a person’s decision to report their experience or not.

“Only between 2-10% of reports are false or fraudulent,” McAdams said. “So that perspective [of protecting the accused as well as the accuser] is suggesting that the 2-10% is somehow more important than the 90-98% that are correct. Then we have to consider the fact that only 10% of sexual assaults are reported in the first place.” 

Based on the percentage of individuals who experience sexual assault and do not come forth (roughly 90%), it is crucial for the goal of legislation to be to encourage reporting rather than inciting more fear.

However, while this policy change is new to Title IX, the hearing process has been exercised at PC for much longer. McAdams reflected on the process of a sexual misconduct hearing she advised in 2013, where there was a live hearing with a cross-examination and witnesses who were brought in for the accused. Therefore, the Title IX changes won’t have a major effect on how PC responds to reports of sexual assault and misconduct because there was a similar hearing process before the Trump administration.

Another change made to the Title IX policy was what exactly characterizes harassment. Now for something to be considered sexual harassment under Title IX, the behavior must be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” Including the word “objectively” makes it harder for survivors to determine if their experience is “worthy” of being reported; however, if an incident causes them discomfort, it should always be taken seriously and discussed with someone who can offer them resources, support, and a course of action. 

If a student, faculty, or staff member is unsure of whether something is qualified as sexual assault or misconduct, the college has other ways of handling incidents that don’t fall under Title IX criteria.

“While the regulations for Title IX have changed when we use which process, our approach to handling the situation does not,” Peterson said. “We always want survivors of these types of behaviors to feel supported and to allow us the opportunity to help them through what has occurred.  Whether it rises to the level of a Title IX complaint or is handled through the usual Student Conduct process, PC has no place for people who do not respect others.”

If a student feels that they have experienced inappropriate treatment or a form of misconduct or assault, PC offers resources for various types of inappropriate behaviors and incidents. These resources include counseling and people who can guide the student to their next course of action. If a student is afraid their experience was not “severe” enough, then that fear can be put to rest. PC has no place for people who don’t respect others, regardless of the severity or occurrence. The faculty and staff at PC work to make resources available to students to emphasize the importance of safety on campus, but we must also remember that each student has a responsibility to help maintain a safe environment on campus.