In 2004, I was 18 and starting my college journey at a small private Christian school near Dallas. I don’t remember much about our campus safety, but what I do remember is being handed a “safety whistle” that we were supposed to keep with us to alert people of dangerous situations. Do you know what happens when a couple hundred freshmen girls are handed whistles to keep themselves safe? It becomes a free for all; hanging out dorm windows blowing whistles at the guys below, running down the halls making a huge racket, and eventually leaving them to collect dust in a desk drawer.
Fast forward to 2017 when I am restarting my college career and one of the biggest changes is the way universities treat campus safety, especially regarding sexual violence. During the transfer student orientation at UHCL, there was an extensive co-ed discussion about Title IX and consent. Six weeks later I watched an hour-long video about the campus sexual violence policies. The many resources available to sexual violence victims are widely publicized, that everyone on campus has access to these resources if needed.
One can dismiss the extreme changes in sexual violence education I have experienced as the difference between private and public schools, which is true but not the whole story.
In 2011, the Department of Education published a letter by Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, titled “Dear Colleague.” This was an extensive letter guiding colleges across the nation on how to handle sexual violence.
The letter states:
“The U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) believe that providing all students with an educational environment free from discrimination is extremely important. The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.”
Opponents of “Dear Colleague” argue that the letter goes too far, and the guidelines make it easy for students to be falsely accused of sexual violence, and their due process rights have been trampled on. OCR emphasized that accused students must have access to all materials relating to their case and the right to present any evidence that might dispute the charges. However, OCR also changed the interpretation of guilt to a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the accused most likely committed the offense.
Sexual violence is an extremely underreported crime in society, and while false allegations are not the norm, it does happen. Approximately 2 to 10 percent of rape allegations are false, this is not ideal- due process rights are in place for a reason but due process rights were never stripped away.
The goal of “Dear Colleague” was to make a campus safe for victims to come out of the shadows to report sexual crimes or misconduct, which the campus had to take seriously: no more sweeping these events under the rug. Changing the evidentiary standards from being clear and convincing to a preponderance of the evidence gave the schools more power to address situations that sometimes do not have enough physical evidence to prosecute. If victims think that no one will believe them, why would they come forward? Schools have the responsibility to ensure a fair process throughout to both students, but these hearings are not going through a courtroom and do not need to be treated as such.
These “Dear Colleague” guidelines are gone as of September, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the letter and rolled guidelines back. The Department of Education has offered interim guidelines that rely heavily on 2001/2006 Title IX guidelines. These guidelines give schools a choice to return to a clear and convincing evidentiary standard, offer mediation as an option instead of a school hearing, and allow the accused student to question the victim in certain circumstances. DeVos is expected to craft new Title IX guidelines in the coming months.
In this interim period, students have a responsibility to speak out and demand better Title IX guidelines for victims of sexual violence. The “Dear Colleague” letter was not perfect, but it did cause much needed change to sexual violence education on campus. Reach out to the OCR to make sure they know students on college campuses care about the next set of guidelines they issue. There is a path forward that can protect the due process rights of accused students while also protecting students from an unsafe educational environment.
If you are a victim of sexual assault, know that there are many resources on and off campus to report assault and get help in the aftermath. The UHCL Counseling Services Center phone number is 281-283-2580, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-656-4673 and the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800-799-7233.