Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, are speaking out against changes being made at the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
The senators co-authored a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that outlines their displeasure with the new procedural changes being put in place that will alter the way the department handles sexual assault cases on college campuses. The letter was in response to a memo from the department that was leaked last month by the watchdog news organization ProPublica.
The memo from Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson says the OCR will be changing the way it investigates complaints against universities and the way the office handles Title IX cases. Title IX is a policy that protects students from sex discrimination and allows the federal government to get involved in sexual assault cases that involve a college or university.
The changes would allow the regional administrators a large range of discretion when it comes to determining what past instances are important to a sexual assault case. The OCR will also no longer be reviewing complaints a school may receive due to systematic problems, if the systematic problem isn’t explicitly explained in the statement.
“We have seen through our work on this issue that often if a school fails to protect students from sexual assault or mishandles an incident of sexual assault, that this is rarely an isolated incident on that campus,” the Gillibrand-McCaskill letter states.
The senators wrote to DeVos, hoping to bring to light the issues with these recent changes and have her intervene. The letter says the changes will make it harder for students to report sexual assault cases, making it easier for the OCR to turn their backs on their responsibility to protect students through Title IX.
The OCR is hoping these new policies will help clear out the backlog of cases before them, but Gillibrand and McCaskill disagree. They believe there are better ways to reduce the backlog, that do not harm the rights of students who are also sexual assault survivors.
“The goal of the OCR must be to protect students and ensure that they are provided a safe and equitable educational experience,” the letter states.
Gillibrand has a reputation when it comes to protecting the rights of sexual assault survivors, both in college and in the military. She is a senator for New York, one of only three states with a statewide policy on affirmative consent, or “yes means yes.”