OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined 18 other attorneys general Thursday, January 31, 2019 in urging U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to withdraw proposed rule changes that protect sexual harassment and violence survivors.
The states write that the proposed changes are legally flawed, would severely weaken protections for students and potentially conflict with state laws against discrimination.
“Students must be safe and protected from sexual harassment, assault and discrimination at school,” said Ferguson. “The Education Department’s proposed rules drastically undermine victims’ ability to report and receive protection. I strongly encourage the Administration to reverse course on this flawed proposal.”
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 guarantees students protection from discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities receiving federal funds. The law applies to schools from kindergarten through university, and includes protections from sexual violence and harassment.
In November 2018, the U.S. Department of Education published the proposed rule, which would reduce the number of Title IX investigations a school conducts and narrow the scope of schools’ responsibilities. The attorneys general argue that the changes are contrary to decades of established law and practice. During the public comment period on the proposed rule, the department has received more than 95,000 comments.
In the letter, the attorneys general of 18 states and the District of Columbia write that the proposed changes run counter to the very purpose of Title IX — to provide equal access to educational opportunities. The states argue that under the changes, survivors of sexual assault would have fewer protections at schools, colleges and universities because the rules would eliminate tools and approaches that have required institutions to address sexual harassment and assault.
Among other changes, the proposed rule would create more barriers to reporting sexual harassment and violence, redefine sexual harassment and loosen requirements for how schools respond to students who experience sexual harassment and violence both on and off campus. These changes would create inconsistencies with existing state laws in many states, including Washington, triggering confusion about the protections available to survivors of discrimination and violence.
Data suggest that sexual harassment, discrimination and violence is common on campuses and notoriously underreported. According to the attorneys general, only 12 percent of college survivors and 2 percent of 14- to 18-year-old female survivors report sexual assault to their schools or the police. The states argue that the proposed rule would create more barriers to reporting and as a result, even fewer victims would come forward.
The proposed rule also undermines requirements that schools protect victims on campus if the assault happened outside of the school’s programs or activities. Studies have found that approximately 34 percent of survivors drop out of college, often because they no longer feel safe on campus. The states argue that removing protections for these students will result in more students leaving school, undermining the law’s purpose to provide equal access to education.
In addition to these changes, the states assert that the proposed rule would significantly alter the way schools investigate and handle sexual violence and harassment claims, if they handle them at all. The attorneys general assert that the rule’s changes are unfair and inequitable and fail to protect student confidentiality.
“Any Title IX regulation should focus on maximizing student access to an education free of sexual discrimination, harassment, assault, stalking, and domestic violence. Yet the proposed rule does the opposite,” the attorneys general write.
“Many of these proposed procedures would thwart the very purpose of Title IX—to provide equal access to educational opportunities. For this reason, we urge you to withdraw this rule.”