Penn students and experts support President Joe Biden’s recent orders to review Title IX policies on sex- and gender-based discrimination at universities, and also insist that Penn needs to provide further support to victims of sexual assault.
Biden signed an "Executive Order on Guaranteeing an Educational Environment Free from Discrimination on the Basis of Sex, Including Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity" on March 8, which served to reverse Trump-era regulations announced on May 6, 2020 by the United States Department of Education, regarding handling of sexual misconduct allegations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The changes are intended to conduct an expansive review of existing Title IX regulations on sex and gender discrimination and violence in schools.
The Department of Education is responsible for ensuring the enforcement of Title IX regulations — which intend to protect students from discrimination based on sex or gender by providing recourse for sexual harassment and sexual violence — by guaranteeing equal consideration of sex and gender under the law by providing funds and enforcement.
In response to Biden's recent order to re-examine Trump-era regulations on the handling of sexual assault and harassment at universities, several members of Penn’s anti-violence groups spoke to The Daily Pennsylvanian about their hopes regarding how the University will provide support for sexual assault survivors at the University.
College junior Allan Cate, a member of Penn Anti-Violence Educators, a student group that facilitates workshops for their peers about the role bystanders can play in ending sexual and relationship violence on campus, said he is uncertain about how long it will take for Biden’s changes to be implemented at Penn.
“I’m not sure that [Biden] is going to be able to put out a full policy that challenges and replaces the former secretary’s policies until maybe 2022 or 2023," Cate said. "It takes a long time for those policies to actually manifest themselves in universities, but at Penn, I think that we have a robust enough administration that if Biden is to introduce new policies, we can adjust pretty quickly to them."
Penn Title IX Officer Michele Rovinsky-Mayer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
College senior Connor Hardy, a PAVE educator who is currently writing a senior thesis on Penn support available to survivors of sexual violence on campus, said that as a student involved with anti-violence work on campus, the policy changes have been “rapid” and can be “disorienting" to keep up with.
“The policies that I came in with as a [first year] are different from the policy in 2019, which are also different from the policy now, and, under Biden, they are about to change again,” Hardy said. “I think that [the frequency of these changes] poses challenges for the University, and also for students in pushing for what they would like Penn to prioritize [regarding its handling of allegations of sexual assault], realizing that the University must act in compliance with Title IX because it is a federal mandate.”
In May, 2020, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos introduced regulations requiring colleges to provide live hearings and allow students' advisers to cross-examine parties and witnesses involved, which forced colleges to assume that those accused of sexual misconduct were innocent prior to the investigative and decision-making process. DeVos faced criticism from survivors for her changes to the Obama-era Title IX policies because they confined Title IX to a more limited definition of sexual harassment and enforced higher standards of evidence.
During his presidential campaign, Biden promised to combat violence against women through the strengthening of Title IX regulations, and increase fines imposed on colleges for violations of the Clery Act, which requires universities to report information about crime and campus safety regulations on their campuses.
NPR reported that Biden's executive order does not have an immediate impact on existing regulations, but that the order calls for a 100-day review period to "consider suspending, revising, or rescinding" the Trump-era policies that are deemed inconsistent with Biden-Harris administration policies.
Like Hardy, College junior Sarah Payne, chair of Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention, a student group on campus that seeks to increase education around the issue of sexual violence and advocate for survivors and for survivors' rights, said that there has been a substantial change in how the incident recording process works during her time at Penn — which impacts how students understand the regulations.
In comparison to Devos' regulations, Payne said ASAP leaders favored Obama's Title IX regulations, which broadened the definition of sexual harassment and held universities responsible for incidences that they should have "reasonably known about." Additionally, it discouraged cross-examination — which allows the perpetrator to have a representative directly question the survivor — and encouraged a "preponderance of evidence" in adjudicating cases. As Biden seeks to revert back to the Obama-era guidelines, Payne questioned whether using policies from 2012 in 2021 could be considered progress.
Payne said that ASAP believes that DeVos' rules, which limited the definition of sexual harassment, made it difficult for students who experienced sexual assault or sexual violence on campus to file a formal report. She believes that Biden can review DeVos' changes, which specifically provided due process for the accused and added cross-examination.
The 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that 22.4% of students reported that they were “very or extremely knowledgeable” about where to find help if they or their friends were victims of sexual assault. 17.5% reported that they were “very or extremely knowledgeable,” but only 9% of students reported being “very or extremely knowledgeable” about what happens once the incident has been reported — which Payne called “extraordinarily low.”
College junior Sam Pancoe, who serves as chair of the Penn Association for Gender Equality, a student group that aims to promote gender and social justice on campus, believes policy changes are necessary to handle allegations of sexual assault more effectively.
Three policy changes Pancoe said she hopes Biden will administer regarding the handling of sexual assault allegations on university campuses are eliminating a clause in Devos’ Title IX regulations that say sexual assault is “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive,” expanding this definition to include reports of off-campus allegations of harassment and digital abuse, and barring survivor cross-examinations.
Community members hope that Penn will take action to increase prevention efforts and provide support for sexual assault survivors on campus.
Though Biden is promising to make federal changes to the handling of gender and sex-based discrimination on campus, Maria Murphy, the interim associate director of the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality, and Women, wrote in an emailed statement to the DP that the University also needs to have a conversation on health care, trans-affirming health care, and access to housing, which she wrote are “the material and structural issues that can make the most difference.”
Aside from providing information about Title IX resources, Hardy believes Penn should publicize that there are organizations students can visit that do not require they prove specific instances of sexual assault or harassment — which Hardy believes can be beneficial to survivors who may be feeling overwhelmed by navigating the resources available to them.
Pancoe hopes that the Penn administration will work to implement further sexual assault prevention measures on campus, such as increasing the amount of education on sexual violence to student groups.
“I obviously hope changes are able to be made [under Biden] but I know it's a really long legislative process, and Title IX isn't really preventative, it happens after the fact,” Pancoe said. “I hope that, in the meantime, Penn is able to take action on the preventative side to supplement whatever Biden is able to accomplish."
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