In all of the sky-is-falling coverage surrounding Trump’s election, most mainstream news networks have neglected to investigate what this election means for combatting sexual assault. President Obama and his administration have been vigorous enforcers of Title IX, a decades-old law that requires gender equality in education and requires schools to handle complaints of harassment. While historically understood to mean equality in sports, an influential 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter released by the Department of Education clarified that sexual violence is a form of harassment prohibited by Title IX, leading to a flurry of investigations into universities mishandling sexual assault reports. As of September, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the office in charge of Title IX enforcement, had over 200 active Title IX investigations.
The importance of the federal government enforcing Title IX requirements cannot be overstated. Before OCR had released numerous documents detailing what was required of schools in handling complaints, schools had very few requirements to work with. As a result, allegations of sexual violence often went unanswered, were swept under the rug, or resulted in grossly inadequate disciplinary processes. OCR’s clarification regarding the process by which schools must handle complaints has revolutionized the way universities and administrators treat sexual violence.
Beyond the importance of OCR’s guidance to schools and vigorous enforcement of Title IX, we have spent the last eight years with a president and administration wholeheartedly committed to ending sexual violence. President Obama and Vice President Biden speak frequently about sexual assault prevention; the White House pioneered a prevention program called “It’s On Us.” Biden has appeared in numerous awareness campaigns and videos aimed at prevention. President Obama penned a widely read essay about why he’s a feminist.
As the age-old saying goes, elections have consequences.
While much of what Trump intends to do as president remains unclear, we can be certain he will be no President Obama. A man thrice accused of rape and accused over a dozen times of sexual assault will likely not be leading the charge to end rape on campus. At best, his administration will leave the pillars of Title IX largely alone. While the kind of vigorous federal enforcement of Title IX we’ve seen over the past several years is almost certain to decrease, emerging from a Trump presidency with the core of Title IX in tact would allow the next administration to (hopefully) return to the kind of vigorous enforcement of the Obama days.
At worst, a Trump administration could gut some of the core provisions of Title IX. Since many of the regulations in place are the result of guidance from OCR and the Department of Education, many core tenets could be rescinded. Likely on the chopping block is the standard by which schools must adjudicate cases of sexual violence: by a standard of “preponderance of the evidence.” That means that if the school determines it is more likely than not that the sexual violence took place, they are obligated to find the student responsible. The preponderance standard is certainly lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal court, but schools aren’t deciding whether to lock someone up; they are determining whether the student in question has abided by the norms the community has set.
Trump and Betsy DeVos, likely the new Secretary of Education, could go further. OCR has asked for more money in order to complete their open investigations and eliminate their backlog; they are unlikely to receive more money. If anything, OCR faces elimination or downsizing, and Trump surrogates have suggested moving the work OCR does, such as Title IX enforcement, to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice is likely to be headed by Jeff Sessions, a senator who said that “grabbing women by the pussy, ” in reference to Trump’s comments, would not constitute sexual assault (which, hint, it does).
Experts also worry about DeVos’ influence on Title IX; her family has given millions to anti-LGBTQ organizations and she attended a college that received a Title IX exemption in order to provide certain scholarships to men only. OCR under Obama has interpreted Title IX to protect against anti-LGBTQ harassment; a recent directive has ordered schools to allow transgender students to utilize facilities in line with their gender identity. That directive may be one of the first targeted by the new administration.
At the very worst, Title IX itself is vulnerable. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, it’s notable that the Republican Party platform for the first time ever explicitly stated that university handling of sexual assault “must be halted before it further muddles this complex issue,” despite convincing evidence to the contrary. The platform suggests limiting Title IX to not include sexual violence.
Regardless of the extent to which Title IX will be attacked in the Trump era, student activists are going to be more important than ever. If the federal government isn’t holding universities’ feet to the fire, students are going to have to pick up the slack. We need to be preparing for what comes with Trump, not waiting around for policy changes to fight. That means codifying as much as possible into university policy. At Duke, organizations like Duke Support, We Are Here Duke, DSG Equity and Outreach, and many others are working on policy changes to Duke’s sexual misconduct policy. If you’re interested in helping to lay the groundwork for the policy we’ll need to keep Duke accountable, please join one of these organizations and help.
Duke has made a commitment to fight sexual violence regardless of whether or not OCR will continue to exist. It’s on us to hold them and other institutions accountable to that promise.
Dana Raphael is a Trinity senior. Her column, "problematic people doing problematic things," runs on alternate Mondays.
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