Three advocacy groups are pushing back on the U.S. Department of Education’s recent rollbacks to Title IX regulations that oversee sexual assault cases on campus.
Three public interest organizations – Democracy Forward, the National Women’s Law Center, and the National Center for Youth Law – filed a lawsuit January 25, arguing that changes in federal regulations, Title IX, weaken support for students who say they’ve been sexually assaulted on college campuses.
“Since September when [Secretary of Education] Betsy DeVos rolled back critical Title IX protections, individuals who’ve experienced sexual misconduct, sexual violence, and sexual assault on campuses have been chilled in their ability to bring claims because they do not believe that the system will adequately protect them,” Skye Perryman, an attorney with Democracy Forward, told VOA.
WATCH: Advocacy Groups Push Back on US College Sex Assault Policies
The lawsuit cites statements made by Candice Jackson, acting assistant secretary for civil rights, who told the New York Times last year that 90 percent of sexual assault charges involve drunken students regretting that “our last sleeping together was not quite right.”
Advocates want to be clear that although guidance on Title IX has changed since September, the law itself has not.
“The only thing that has changed is the way the administration will interpret Title IX protections through the Department of Education,” Catalina Velasquez of End Rape on Campus, told VOA.
“That’s what has changed. Not the law itself, but the way it is interpreted,” she said, adding that the regulations were still alarming and need to urgently be addressed.
To change the law entirely would require a bill to be drafted, proposed, and approved by U.S. Congress.
Colleges and universities that receive federal funding are required to offer a clear way for students and employees to file complaints and hold fair, open campus investigations and criminal investigations by local police, according to Title IX regulations. They must also provide special medical services for victims.
Last September, the U.S. Education Department withdrew 2011 guidance on how colleges should handle accusations of sexual assault, saying the policy "failed to ensure fundamental fairness."
"Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head on," DeVos said after releasing the guidelines. "There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes,” she said, explaining that those accused of assault on campus deserved a fair trial.
The 2011 guidance mandated that schools allow both the accuser and accused in harassment and assault cases to appeal findings. It also required universities to complete assault investigations within 60 days.
Both of these, and other, regulations have been undone since September, and interim guidelines even allow for informal mediation between the accuser and the accused in lieu of a formal process, if both parties are willing.
Many female college students said they were unaware of new regulations, though, and noted that even under the previous administration, they had little faith in their university’s system to handle sexual assault claims.
According to a 2015 study by the Association of American Universities, only 25.8 percent of students said that they were “very or extremely” knowledgeable of where to report a sexual assault on campus.
“I was one of those students,” Emily Franklin, a former student who was raped during her time at St. Scholastica College, told VOA.
“After my assault the first thing I did was I showered, I washed all my clothes, I vacuumed I did everything you’re not supposed to do. I had honestly not heard of rape kits, I didn’t know the process … I never received any of that training at my school,” she added.
Franklin, who graduated in May 2016, has filed a complaint against her university for a Title IX violation with the help of SurvJustice – an organization which provides legal support to survivors of sexual violence, and one of the three plaintiffs of the lawsuit against the Education Department.
The attorneys timed their filing for the day after emotional courtroom statements of more than 150 sexual assault victims of popular sports and Olympics doctor, Larry Nassar, an employee of Michigan State University.
The investigation into Michigan State University is one of more than 300 pending cases under investigation for Title IX violations related to sexual assault at U.S. universities and colleges, according to data from the Department of Education.