The U.S. Department Of Education Must Not Be Allowed To Roll-Back Progress On Tackling Campus Sexual Violence Under Title IX

Vice President Joe Biden, flanked by Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, announced  comprehensive guidance to help
Vice President Joe Biden, flanked by Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, announced comprehensive guidance to help schools, colleges and universities better understand their obligations under federal civil rights laws to prevent and respond to the problem of campus sexual assault. April 4, 2011, University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire.

Sexual violence in our nation’s college and university campus communities is a significant challenge. This is no myth or hoax. Numerous scientific studies going back at least thirty years have documented that between one-in-five and one-in-four women will be victimized over their time in college. There has long been a framework under federal law, Title IX which prohibits gender discrimination in access to educational opportunities, to address sexual harassment and violence, but it is, and has been broken. We owe our students better, we owe them a safe learning environment, and we owe it to taxpayers who support education to ensure that investment isn’t diminished by the negative impact of sexual violence.

The Obama administration inherited this broken system, due in large part simply to systemic neglect by administrations and Congresses of both Republicans and Democrats. Under the leadership of Vice President Joe Biden, the Obama Administration in 2011 made addressing Title IX’s sexual violence requirements a priority tackling extensive problems both in higher education and federal enforcement that had been identified in an investigative series by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR in 2009 and 2010.

They began making significant progress including instituting “universal guidance” in the form of a Dear Colleague Letter, and addressing not just cases presented by individual sexual assault survivors but investigating how these institutions handled every case. This was important because as the investigative reporting had revealed colleges and universities often had problems with their entire process affecting far more than just one case. Unfortunately, by 2014 this had led to a whole new problem. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the unit tasked with Title IX enforcement, was overwhelmed with far more case work than they could possibly resolve in any reasonable period of time given the personnel they had. There was never any real plan to correct this as cases continued to mount-up.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Title IX Tracker, since enforcement was stepped-up in 2011 “the government has conducted 399 investigations of colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence.” Of those “62 cases have been resolved and 337 remain open.” The average case duration is 1.7 years, not the 180 days recommended by OCR, and many cases are open over 3 years with some up to 6 years. Often the students who initiated or were involved in any investigation have left campus by then receiving no justice.

The Trump Administration then inherited this problem. “In OCR, processing times have skyrocketed in recent years and the case backlog has exploded,” the U.S. Department of Education (ED) said in a statement. “Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long.” This is a sentiment echoed by many Title IX complainants, but how this is corrected is at least as important as recognizing the problem. The Obama Administration failed to do either effectively acting like the driver of a car obliviously about to drive off a cliff hoping for a hand to pluck them out of the sky before they crashed into the ground below, and it does not seem like the Trump Administration will be aspiring to get to the root of the problem either.

As recently reported by ProPublica and The New York Times, OCR, under the leadership of Candice E. Jackson, the acting head of the office, is planning to address this backlog by scaling back the scope of their reviews. “There is no longer an artificial requirement to collect several years of data when many complaints can be adequately addressed much more efficiently and quickly,” they said in the official statement. In simpler terms this means OCR won’t be looking at broken systems and how to fix them, only the injustices reported by a single complainant. While this may expedite justice for individual complainants, it will fall back to a system that continued to allow systemic flaws to deny justice. We have come too far to allow this to happen, and meeting both needs must not be considered mutually exclusive.

Catherine Lhamon, second from left, participates in a White House panel discussion about campus sexual violence. April 29, 20
Catherine Lhamon, second from left, participates in a White House panel discussion about campus sexual violence. April 29, 2014.

Ironically Catherine Lhamon, who headed OCR in the final years of the Obama Administration in which the back-log was allowed to accumulate under her watch, now heads the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and has announced they will launch “a two-year investigation of federal civil rights enforcement” including a focus on ED. We don’t have two-years to wait for an investigation, especially one headed by the official who was on watch while much of the underlying problem was created. We need solutions, and we need them now not in two-years.

A bi-partisan group of U.S. Senators, headed by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Dean Heller (R-NV) stepped forward with part of the solution last year bolstering a request from the Obama Administration. They sought to appropriate “at least $137.7 million” for OCR in Fiscal Year 2017 “to be used in part for the investigation and enforcement of Title IX.” This did not happen and OCR funding was kept level at $107 million. The Trump Administration’s proposed budget, however, would slightly reduce overall funding to under this amount, and would cut the personnel budget by $4 million from $68 million to $56 million.

U.S. Representatives Annie Kuster (NH-02), Patrick Meehan (PA-07), Jackie Speier (CA-14), and David Joyce (OH-14) launched th
U.S. Representatives Annie Kuster (NH-02), Patrick Meehan (PA-07), Jackie Speier (CA-14), and David Joyce (OH-14) launched the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence. April 5, 2017, Washington, DC.

More money alone is not the solution, but it is an important part of it. If our country is going to take this obligation seriously we need to make the commitment to actually do so. More strategic enforcement by OCR should also be an essential part of the solution. The bi-partisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA), which is pending in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence in the House are both critical pieces of the solution as well. Combatting sexual violence has never been, and is not a partisan issue. The unity of the legislators working on these issues proves that, and I am hopeful they will work to bring about the needed solutions sooner rather than later.