U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced plans Thursday to change federal requirements regarding sexual assaults on college campuses, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things will change locally.
DeVos criticized guidelines put in place under the Barack Obama administration in 2011 under the auspices of the federal law known as Title IX. DeVos said those guidelines “failed too many students,” and promised new rules. While both Wilkes and Misericordia universities promised to abide by any new mandates, they stressed student safety is the ultimate motivator.
“I do not see us changing the way we approach this,” Misericordia Dean of Students Amy Lenhart said.
Like other area schools over the last decade, Misericordia has implemented multiple programs to educate everyone on sexual assault, consent, bystander intervention and healthy relationships. But Lenhart said “we do not comply with Title IX because the government tells us to, we ground our programs on our connection with the founding mission of the Sisters of Mercy.”
Obama’s guidelines were issued in what became known as the “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities, spelling out what would be required to meet federal rules on sexual assault under the gender-equity rules of Title IX.
Many people know the 1972 Title IX as the force behind equal opportunities in sports for male and female students, and for “pottie parity” rules that required the number of toilets in a girls bathroom to equal the number of toilets and urinals in a boys room.
But it expanded into the issue of sexual assault and harassment thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1980s and 1990s that deemed harassment and assault as denying women equal opportunity in education.
The 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter primarily dealt with how colleges were to respond after an allegation of sexual assault, but it spurred a lot of proactive changes as well, including various prevention programs.
DeVos has only signaled an intent to change the guidelines; she has not issued new rules. But she has cited what she contends are cases where those accused of assault were denied due process under the existing rules, which reduced the level of evidence needed to deem an allegation as true.
Critics counter the “Dear Colleague” letter did not create denial of due process, and that enforcing the rules completely would fix any such problem.
Lenhart stressed Misericordia will follow any guidance issued, but said it would not be likely that current policies and programs would be rolled back unless expressly required by the new rules.
She cited two examples of how the university works to prevent assaults through education — a mandatory program for first-year students called Promoting Awareness for College Transition (PACT) and the student peer education program Promoting Healthy Relationships through Education and Empowerment (PHREE).
“We see a significant impact on our students,” Lenhart said. “And we will continue our effort to proactively come up with innovative ways we can educate students on this topic.”
Wilkes University Communication Director Gabrielle D’Amico offered a written statement that said the school will be following the developments in Washington, but noted “our top priority remains the safety and well-being of our students, and we place a high value on sexual misconduct education.”
Wilkes developed the “Colonels Don’t Stand By” bystander intervention program as part of the effort to prevent sexual assault, and “we embrace this commitment so that every Wilkes student is provided the opportunity to learn and grow in a safe and nurturing environment.”