With the dreaded COVID-19 rightly dominating the news for the past few months, other important issues have been relegated to the back pages—including some that might wind up having longer-lasting effects than the coronavirus pandemic.
For example, last week Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued new Title IX guidelines that actually define “sexual harassment” for the first time and hold schools “accountable for failure to respond equitably and promptly to sexual misconduct incidents” while ensuring “a more reliable adjudication process that is fair to all students.”
“This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process,” DeVos said in a statement.
And more clarity, more accountability, and more fairness, particularly in the fraught arena of sexual relations, is exactly what will be needed on the nation’s college campuses when they finally reopen if COVID-19 doesn’t kill the campus hook-up culture first.
The department’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, in which schools were threatened with the loss of federal funds if they did not crack down harder on alleged sexual offenders, was an attempt to force college administrators to take students’ claims of sexual misconduct seriously instead of just sweeping them under the proverbial rug, as many of them had long been doing.
But it also created confusion and inequity, with many institutions abandoning accused students’ basic due process rights, such as the right to confront and question their accuser.
In response, a number of students accused of sexual misconduct filed lawsuits against their alma maters and won, including a former Boston College student who was suspended in 2012 for alleged indecent battery and assault (a surveillance camera later showed that he was at least four feet away from the victim when the assault occurred on a university-sponsored cruise). He was awarded a $100,000 judgment last September after a federal jury found that the college had mishandled the case.
While the new Title IX guidelines are a step in the right direction—they now require colleges to notify students when they have been accused of sexual misconduct, and allow them to view the evidence against them and have an outside representative cross-examine the accuser—they still do not solve the main problem. Educational institutions are ill-equipped to investigate and adjudicate criminal sexual behavior in a fair and consistent manner.
That job should be left to the local police department and local prosecutors, who have the necessary training and experience in such matters, including collecting evidence and making the crucial determination whether a particular sex act was indeed a crime instead of merely a next-morning regret. Rapists belong in prison; participants in consensual relations gone awry do not.
The role of college administrators in this process should be to educate all students on the seriousness of criminal sexual behavior on campus or off, and to support victims, not to replace local law enforcement and the judicial system.
Ironically, the old-fashioned in loco parentis policies that once prevailed on most college campuses (i.e. sex-segregated dorms, curfews, etc.) were established to protect young women from sexual predators on campus. These traditional institutional protections have long since been abandoned, but young women are still being assaulted on college campuses.
And as the swinging pendulum—between taking victims seriously on the one hand, and granting due process to the accused on the other—shows, society is still struggling to come up with a better alternative.