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Landmark Title IX lawsuit filed against Trump administration

Wmc Features De Vos Lawsuit Maria Merkulova 012718
Advocates announced the lawsuit in front of the Department of Education on Thursday. Photo by Maria Merkulova.

Several legal advocacy groups and sexual assault survivors gathered Thursday in front of the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. to announce a landmark lawsuit against the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in an effort to strike down their discriminatory attacks on crucial Title IX protections for survivors of sexual violence and harassment on college campuses.

Three public-interest law firms — the National Women's Law Center, National Center for Youth Law, and Democracy Forward — have filed suit on behalf of plaintiffs SurvJustice (a survivor-led national not-for-profit group that works for justice for survivors of sexual violence), Equal Rights Advocates (a national civil rights organization dedicated to protecting and expanding economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls), and Victim Rights Law Center (the first nonprofit law center in the country solely focused on the legal needs of sexual assault survivors).

“It is unacceptable that the education of women and girls across the country is compromised by sexual harassment and violence,” commented Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates. “Yet, under the leadership of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education abandoned efforts to protect and preserve the civil rights of sexual assault survivors in schools.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, comes after DeVos’ announcement in September that she was reversing key parts of Obama-era policy on how colleges and universities should handle sexual assaults under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex for schools and programs that receive federal funding, including protection from sexual harassment. The new changes to Title IX, the latest in a widespread rollback of Obama’s policies by the Trump administration, would withdraw guidelines because of the current Department of Education’s concerns that previous guidance denied proper due process to those accused.

The plaintiffs are requesting that the new Title IX policy issued by the Department of Education in September be annulled and replaced with the previous Title IX policy and guidance, asserting that the new policy is unconstitutional, guided by a discriminatory and baseless belief that women and girls often lie about sexual harassment and violence, and that it revokes protections for survivors that are critical to providing equal access to education. They contend that with these rollbacks, victims are less likely to receive just treatment in their cases and that the new Title IX policy under Trump discriminates against survivors by:

  • allowing schools to resolve claims of violent sexual assault through mediation (a process that avoids accountability and can be traumatic for many survivors and lead to unjust outcomes);
  • allowing schools to give those accused of sexual violence the right to appeal an unfavorable investigative outcome but deny survivors of sexual violence that same right;
  • allowing schools not to issue interim measures, like moving out of a residence or changing class schedules, to protect victims of sexual misconduct from further harassment or violence during campus proceedings; and
  • eliminating the requirement that schools conduct prompt investigations following reports of sexual violence, allowing cases to drag on without limit.

Though DeVos did say she plans to enact new Title IX rules after a public comment period, there’s no telling how many months that process will take, which means that in the meantime, colleges may choose to maintain the lower standard of proof, putting victims of sexual assault at risk and discouraging them from reporting their assaults.

The uprising expressed through the landmark lawsuit against the Trump administration’s unconstitutional policies comes as no surprise in the wake of the national conversation brought by the #MeToo movement. The powerful conversation has shed light on the prevalence and devastating impact of sexual violence and harassment in schools and the workplace and the need to believe and support survivors.

The backlash against DeVos’ changes to Title IX has been fierce. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is a long-time advocate for sexual assault survivors, was among the many to condemn the rollbacks, tweeting, “Shameful. This decision will hurt and betray students, plain and simple.” 

Laura L. Dunn, executive director of SurvJustice, one of the plaintiffs, said that the changes to Title IX have already deterred victims of sexual assault from coming forward: “We will not accept Secretary DeVos making it harder for survivors to have equal access to education. We’ve heard directly from student-survivors who are questioning whether it's even worth reporting sexual violence and abuse because of the new Title IX policy. We should be making it easier, not harder, for survivors to speak out, and we’re committed to fighting this unconstitutional action by the Trump administration.”

Anne Harkavy, executive director of Democracy Forward, litigators in the case, had this to say: “Let’s be clear: In illegally issuing the most extreme Title IX policy in history, President Trump has once again shown he has no respect for facts, for the Constitution, or for women.”

The plaintiffs hope that filing this lawsuit will send a clear message that these policies are unconstitutional, harmful, and unacceptable — especially given the current national reckoning against sexual harassment and assault that demands greater support for survivors, not a weakening of protections or policies that would silence their voices. “We need to level the playing field so that girls in school feel safe to report sexual harassment and violence and receive the protections they deserve under the law," said Jesse Hahnel, executive director of the National Center for Youth Law, a national nonprofit law firm that has been working for over four decades to improve the lives of marginalized children. “Otherwise, yet another generation of girls will one day have to say #MeToo.” 

More articles by Category: Education
More articles by Tag: Title IX, Sexualized violence, sexual assault



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