By Gianluca D’Elia
Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, vowed to replace what she called a “failed system” of campus sexual assault policy in a Sept. 7 address to students at George Mason University in Virginia. In particular, she called for a better balance between protecting the rights of both victims and accused students.
DeVos’ announcement of her intention to change Title IX sexual violence guidelines made by former President Barack Obama’s administration, has led to widespread concern about how sexual violence cases on college campuses will be handled in the future. Title IX is a section of the U.S. Higher Education Amendments which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education.
“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously, and every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” DeVos said. “This conversation has too often been framed as a competition between men and women, or the rights of survivors and the due process rights of accused students. The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the victim only creates more victims.”
Rob Stoto, Rider’s Title IX Coordinator, said the university will still adhere to the guidelines it has already been following.
“Rather than being driven solely by the political winds at any point in time, the university’s commitment to fostering an environment of mutual respect is the basis for our Title IX guidelines. They are designed to balance fairness to all involved parties while ensuring prompt, effective and equitable resolution of all issues,” Stoto said.
Prevention Education Coordinator Susan Stahley said she shares the concerns of other college administrators across the country that DeVos might lean toward a more lenient system for accused students, but Rider’s process of handling sexual assault will not change.
“As always, I believe in supporting anyone willing to come forward and share their victimization,” Stahley said. “No victim blaming is ever appropriate or deserved. I am interested in seeing what guidance comes from this administration and how it changes from the directives provided by the previous administration. At the time, I don’t see how our process would change.”
Stoto added, “In today’s political environment, it is certainly difficult to predict the direction that federal policy might take when it comes to Title IX-related issues, or a number of other issues for that matter. But without a doubt, it is important that the university remain abreast of developments at the federal level as they occur, and adjust our policies and practices to the extent that those guidelines may require.”
Senior psychology major Alison Holmes said she is concerned that DeVos’ potential policy change will make victims of sexual violence reluctant to speak up.
“If this change is implemented, college campuses will be negatively influenced, and sexual assault and rape cases will increase because there might be less punishment,” Holmes said. “I think it would deter victims of rape and sexual assault to come forward against their attackers. It would scare victims from wanting to seek legal help.”
Stahley noted that despite what changes President Donald Trump’s administration might eventually make to federal Title IX guidelines, colleges and universities — including Rider — will still have to follow the requirements of the Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act — named for Jeanne Clery, a former Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in a campus residence hall in 1986 — requires all colleges and universities that receive federal financial aid to disclose information about crimes on and near their campuses. Federal Title IX guideline changes will not affect the Clery Act.
In a Sept. 14 article for Huffington Post, campus security consultant S. Daniel Carter highlighted that the Clery Act already takes a balanced approach to guarantee the rights of both the accuser and the accused.
A study from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), released in early September, found that 74 percent of top universities do not guarantee accused students the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. However, the Clery Act already mandates what civil liberties organizations like FIRE are asking for. In legal proceedings for sexual violence investigations, the Clery Act requires a “prompt, fair and impartial process from the initial investigation to the final result.”
Furthermore, investigations must also be led by unbiased officials who have been trained on sexual violence. Both the accuser and the accused have the right to have others present in disciplinary meetings and hearings, equal access to information about the investigation and simultaneous notification of the results of the proceeding, as well as the right to appeal the results, according to Carter.
In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, the Dept. of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights announced to all of the colleges and universities in the U.S. that receive federal funding — about 7,000 schools — that sexual violence and harassment on campuses would be considered sexual discrimination under Title IX because it interferes with students’ rights to receive an education free from discrimination.
“When I came on board and other members of our Title IX working group looked at the law, in addition to the Dear Colleague letter, and made changes as needed,” Stahley said. “Many of the requirements were already being done at Rider.”
Senior psychology major Ashley Leeds, president of Real Education About College Health (REACH), a peer education program that focuses on student health, said, “DeVos hasn’t been the most conscientious figure in higher education. The fact that she is focusing on the rights of the accused is demonstrating a lack of empathy. Innocent victims who didn’t ask for sexual assault need to be taken into account.”
Leeds noted that Rider “handles sexual assault fairly well by communicating incidents and offering support.”
Stoto said, “When it comes to Title IX issues, the university’s general philosophy is grounded in our mission, vision and values.”
The 2011 guidelines set by the Obama administration led to DOE investigations of hundreds of colleges, including four universities in New Jersey — Rider, Princeton, Monmouth and Seton Hall. Each of the four schools has an open Title IX case right now, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Title IX tracker. The federal government has conducted 435 Title IX investigations since April 2011. So far, 76 cases have been resolved and 359 are still open, the Chronicle reported.
Following a cluster of sexual assault incidents in the Fall 2015 semester, the DOE launched an investigation of Rider’s Title IX practices in April 2016, along with 106 other colleges and universities.
There were two incidents in October and November 2015, in which students reported being assaulted by another student in residence halls. That same semester, in early October, a Hamilton man was arrested in connection to the sexual assault of female students at Rider. The suspect, identified as Jon Cannon, snuck into West Village apartments and attempted to fondle sleeping female students. Cannon was charged on Oct. 2 for two incidents from Sept. 11 and 27. He was later charged for similar incidents at The College of New Jersey and the University of Wyoming in 2016.
In Rider’s most recent Security and Fire Safety Report, filed in compliance with the Clery Act, the university reported five cases of rape, two cases of fondling, three cases of domestic violence and two cases of stalking in 2015 on the Lawrenceville campus. The 2016 Clery report has not been released yet.
Rider is also facing a lawsuit, filed in Aug. 2016, from a student who was found responsible for sexual assault and expelled in one of the fall 2015 incidents. He claimed the university “refused to afford him any semblance of fundamental fairness.” University spokeswoman Kristine Brown said Rider is not able to comment on pending litigation.
“Victims already face backlash from society about [sexual assault] being ‘their fault,’” Holmes added. “Having another thing working against victims would just make our legal system even more skewed and unjust.”
The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673. Confidential help is available for free, 24 hours every day. Additionally, Rider’s Alcohol, Drug & Sexual Assault Program is participating in “RAINN Day,” a sexual violence awareness campaign by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, on Sept. 21. Students are encouraged to carry umbrellas on campus Thursday as part of the campaign.