Pitt requests extension for implementing controversial new Title IX rule


Gage Skidmore | Flickr

Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, issued final rules on May 6 regarding the manner in which universities conduct investigations of sexual misconduct.

By Charlotte Pearse, Staff Writer

Following the U.S. Department of Education’s May 6 announcement of a controversial new Title IX rule to take effect by Aug. 14, Pitt joined with other universities to request a longer implementation timeline.

“The University of Pittsburgh’s goal is — and always will be — to eradicate sexual assault and misconduct on our campuses and work to ensure that everyone feels safe, respected and supported as members of our community,” the University said in a statement. “Yet, the new Title IX regulations require institutions of higher education, Pitt included, to overhaul our procedures, policies and training by Aug. 14.”

The controversial new rule makes a variety of changes to Title IX procedures, including live hearings and cross-examinations of victims by the accused. The new rule is also more restrictive in its definition of sexual harassment, which includes “any unwelcome conduct that a reasonable person would find so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies personal equal education access.”

After the federal education department first proposed the new rule at the end of 2018, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher voiced concerns in February 2019 about the requirements for hearings and cross-examination. Gallagher also said he was concerned about revisions made to the definition of sexual assault that, he said, had the potential to sow confusion among students as to whether they should come forward or not.

“We believe that if executed as currently proposed, the Department’s regulations have the potential to adversely affect the higher education landscape in direct, diverse and consequential ways,” Gallagher said at the time.

Mary Roche, a recent Pitt political science graduate and former peer educator with the Sexual Assault Facilitation and Education program, expressed concerns that some people might not even know about these new regulations, since the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing the majority of people’s attention.

“I think it’s really interesting that they released the rules now, because obviously, unless you’re really aware of this whole process, of the changes that were made, you know, no one’s really looking for this news,” Roche said. “It’s a really tough time for everyone, so I don’t even know if a lot of people know that this happened.”

Roche was a junior at Pitt when the commenting period for the proposed changes opened. Like Gallagher, she also submitted a statement to the federal Department of Education during the public comment period that voiced many of the organization’s concerns and emphasized the political nature of the issue.

“I know the big one that a lot of people are talking about is that they’re redefining the definition of sexual harassment and broadly, I would say, sexual misconduct,” Roche said. “And a lot of survivor rights activists kind of groups are saying that it’s a more narrow definition, which I definitely agree with, so that’s scary.”

Another big concern Roche mentioned is the issue of cross-examination, and the possibility that the survivor and alleged perpetrator would have to be in the same room for the questioning process. Claire Lapat, a rising junior microbiology major and president of the student group Pitt Unmuted, said she agreed this was an issue point and had several other concerns.

Lapat said she felt that students would feel less comfortable coming forward to the Title IX office with the new rule in place.

“I think that it’s hard enough for someone who’s experienced something so heinous to come forward already,” Lapat said. “Nobody wants to have a live trial … nobody wants to be cross-examined, and that, I think, is just a huge deterrent from students to go to the Title IX office.”

Roche said she was excited to see more than 120,000 letters submitted during the rule’s comment period to the federal government, but her qualms about the new regulations haven’t gone away. She feared that students would hesitate to use the Title IX office as a resource, possibly because of these new regulations.

“My biggest concern is like, Title IX is supposed to be a resource for students on these college campuses,” Roche said. “And I’m worried that a lot of survivors are not going to want to go Title IX out of these concerns that, you know, Title IX might not help them out.”

Lapat said she shared Roche’s fears, and added that often students will opt to report to the Title IX office instead of the local police, since the office can provide resources beyond a specific investigation. The office can provide referrals both on and off campus for health, counseling or related services, offer training on consent and sexual assault prevention and walk students through the process of making a formal report to the Pitt police and provide contacts.

Though the Title IX office will still continue doing these things, Lapat said it doesn’t change the fact that students are worried about what changes the new rule will bring.

“They can give accomodations and kind of open up a platform for students to talk to their professors about what they’re going through, and kind of work with the professors to provide support,” Lapat said. “And if you take away that from people who’ve been through this, I think that goes against everything Title IX stands for.”