Federal changes to Title IX guidelines — directives from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights detailing how universities should investigate reports of sexual assault — have not altered the way the University of Wyoming handles such reports, said UW officials who work with victims of gender-based violence.
University regulations might have to be changed, however, if the Office of Civil Rights issues new guidelines that contradict UW’s current policies, said Megan Selheim, UW’s STOP Violence program coordinator.
“There are not dramatic changes to our process right now, but it is gray and it’s possible that there will be more significant changes if the department of education issues a new ‘Dear Colleague’ letter that basically mandates different changes,” she said. “And when they rescinded the Obama ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, it sounded like that was the intention.”
Title IX refers to a section of the Education Amendments of 1972 — federal legislation that requires institutions of higher education not to discriminate on the basis of sex, among other requirements.
“Dear Colleague” letters, disseminated by the OCR throughout the intervening decades, have affected the way Title IX is enforced on university campuses. Issued under the Obama administration, a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter set expectations for how universities respond to reports of sexual assault, the timeline investigations must follow, how and how much evidence must be collected and more.
“What was beneficial about the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter was that it set some pretty clear expectations that then also found their way into a university policy,” Selheim said.
UW updated several of its regulations relating to sexual discrimination and misconduct in September, adding more specific language regarding Title IX and in keeping with the 2011 letter, though UW officials said the updated regulations simply reflected the Title IX-compliant practices already in place.
One week after the regulations were updated — also in September — the Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos, rescinded the 2011 letter, as well as a 2014 letter clarifying the former.
“(The rescission) basically said some of these things that the Obama ‘Dear Colleague’ letter said are not required anymore,” Selheim said. “But the rescission didn’t explicitly say that schools have to undo them or that schools have to make changes to a new evidentiary standard or a different timeline.”
As an advocate for victims, Selheim said she advises students who report gender-based violence on what they can expect as the investigation and process move forward.
She said her job is explaining the university’s process, so what she does day-to-day will not change unless university regulations change.
In an Office of Civil Rights news release, DeVos states the previous ‘Dear Colleague’ letters created an unfair system that lacked due process.
“Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on,” DeVos says in the release. “There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”
Jim Osborn, UW’s Title IX coordinator, said the university has maintained a fair system, even as it made changes to be compliant with the 2011 and 2014 letters.
“The ‘Dear Colleague’ letters that the Office of Civil Rights rescinded don’t require any change on our part,” he said. “Our processes were already designed to provide equity and fairness and due process for all parties involved.”
Osborn added his office does not expect a drop in reports and he hopes the changes will not lead people to refrain from reporting.
“That fact that we’re not having to change any of our policies, we hope, will help give folks some confidence that we do allow for due process,” he said. “We’re pretty transparent about our process and the policies.”
Selheim also said UW respected due process in its sexual assault investigations.
“The University of Wyoming works very, very hard to ensure that students’ due process rights are protected in any campus conduct process, which includes our sexual misconduct process,” she said. “My understanding of the Obama 2011 letter is that it didn’t actually make any explicit mandates or recommendations regarding things that could be considered due process.”
Selheim added many institutions reacted strongly to the Obama-era guidelines and swung too far for the new administration’s comfort. She said UW did not do this.
“I think a number of the due process issues that have come up — in terms of lawsuits and things like that — since the 2011 letter had less to do with the actual letter and more to do with how institutions interpreted the letter,” Selheim said.
Students can make reports at www.uwyo.edu/reportit or contact the STOP Violence Program at 766-3434.