Florida colleges scramble to explain sweeping new DeVos rules on sexual misconduct

University of South Florida. Credit: USF Facebook page.

WASHINGTON — Florida colleges welcoming some students to campus this fall — despite the pandemic — face a second major challenge.

They also must put in place major new federal rules on campus sexual assault and misconduct that extend added rights to the accused.

Policy changes in both public health and sexual misconduct areas have major implications for students, faculty, and staff at a time when everyone seems overwhelmed at the beginning of the new academic year.

“We’ve implemented the new regulations but it’s too soon to see any outcomes or how the changes impact the campus community,” said Florida State University spokeswoman Amy Farnum-Patronis.

Overall, Florida’s public and private universities are updating policies, hiring new staff, developing new training programs, and hosting virtual discussions, among other measures in response to the new rules.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who launched the process of writing new rules to replace Obama-era guidance, has said they are needed to support survivors of sexual misconduct “without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process.”

Sexual violence on college campuses, meanwhile, is not uncommon, with nearly a quarter of undergraduate women experiencing rape or sexual assault by force, violence or incapacitation, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. 

A 2019 sexual misconduct survey at the University of Florida reported that “30.1 percent of undergraduate women and 7.7 percent of undergraduate men experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by force or inability to consent.”

The results show that “19 percent of graduate women and 3.9 percent of graduate men experienced nonconsensual sexual conduct by force or inability to consent” and “almost half of U.F. students (45 percent) experienced at least one type of harassment.”

The university sent the survey to students who were 18 and older in the spring of 2019 and received 6,561 responses, according to a U.F. press release.

The new federal rules expand rights for people accused of sexual misconduct on college campuses and make other changes regarding schools’ obligations to respond to misconduct complaints.

In particular, they require schools to dismiss cases that occur during study-abroad trips or outside school programs or activities or that don’t meet more stringent definitions of sexual harassment, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Schools can ignore cases that aren’t reported in formal complaints, and survivors and witnesses are subject to live and potentially “retraumatizing” cross-examination in a trial-like atmosphere, although the accused is prevented from directly confronting an accuser.

The rules fall under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which outlaws sex discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal funds. They were finalized in May — giving colleges and universities three months to implement them by the Aug. 14 deadline.

Spreading the word about them is another major challenge — and time is of the essence. Students face higher risks of sexual violence from August to November, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and first-year students are at special risk.

DeVos says the new rules will improve due process in campus sexual assault cases and create a fairer adjudication system. And the Trump administration says they were carefully developed with years of research and consideration of more than 124,000 public comments.

But critics say they will roll back the clock on gender equity in education by discouraging victims from coming forward and causing school officials to investigate fewer complaints of sexual misconduct.

Critics have also assailed the timing of the new rules.

“That the Department of Education has spent its time finalizing this out-of-touch rule rolling back decades of progress instead of helping students and educators weather the coronavirus crisis highlights the staggering depths of this administration’s contempt for survivor justice and campus safety,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement after the rules were finalized in May.

Eighteen attorneys general filed a lawsuit in June against DeVos and the U.S. Education Department challenging the rules, but a federal judge has allowed the regulation to move forward, according to The Washington Post. Another group of attorneys general, including Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, filed a brief in support of the rules.

Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, pledged to continue to fight the rules in court but said colleges should set higher standards in the meantime.

“As students head back to school during a health pandemic surrounded by uncertainty, schools can at least have students’ backs when it comes to sexual harassment and assault,” she said in an Aug. 14 statement.

Some Florida universities posted website updates to its campus community regarding the rules on sexual misconduct and reiterated its commitment to addressing those issues.

The University of Florida, in Gainesville, said in a May update that the law requires institutions to “presume that those accused of sexual misconduct are innocent prior to the investigation.”

The University of Miami, in Coral Gables, sent a message to its campus community in August to assure the “campus community members of U.M.’s unwavering commitment to preventing and responding to sexual misconduct by any member of our community.”

U.M. also said that, after reviewing the new rules, it has updated its policies related to sexual misconduct and sex or gender discrimination “to be consistent with the new law and with the university’s commitment to preventing and addressing sexual misconduct as a means to creating a culture of belonging for all.”

A Q&A session regarding the new Title IX rules will be held in September for U.M. students through a one-hour virtual discussion on Zoom.

At the University of South Florida in Tampa, there have been many sexual violence allegations posted on social media involving former and current students and some student organizations, according to a July 1 campus message from President Steven Currall.

In an August 11 message, Currall said that, “Recognizing the importance of responding to and investigating allegations in a timely manner, we have also committed to investing new resources to hire two new staff members in the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity.”

Currall added that USF’s “Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention and the Title IX Office are now developing a training program designed for members of fraternities and sororities.”

The university requires first-year, transfer, and graduate students to take an online sexual assault prevention training before registering for classes, according to Currall.

USF spokesperson Althea Paul said, “The University of South Florida has updated its Sexual Harassment Policy and Student Conduct Regulation to comply with the new federal guidelines and will continue its ongoing efforts to prohibit sexual misconduct and provide the support and resources necessary to members of the USF community.”