Blue States Take Feds to Court Over College Sexual Assault Rules

The new rules have drawn backlash from civil rights groups and Democratic leaders across the country.

Prospective students tour Georgetown University’s campus in Washington in 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

(CN) — The Trump administration’s new Title IX rules mean students across the U.S. will return to school in the fall with fewer protections from sexual assault, a group of Democrat-led states claim in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

Attorneys general for 17 blue states and the District of Columbia are challenging a rule change announced by the Education Department last month that pertains to how universities should address allegations of sexual misconduct.

They say the new rules strip protections from survivors and give more rights to the accused.

For example, according to the federal complaint filed in Washington, schools are not allowed to investigate and remedy an isolated incident of sexual harassment, including some forms of unwanted touching, because the definition of sexual harassment has been narrowed.

The attorneys general say the new regulations also limit the ability of schools to investigate claims made by former students—even when the alleged perpetrator is still on campus. 

“The rule will reverse decades of effort to end the corrosive effects of sexual harassment on equal access to education—a commitment that, until now, has been shared by Congress and the Executive Branch across multiple elections and administrations, as well as by state and local officials and school administrators,” the 119-page complaint states.

The federal government, Department of Education and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are named as the defendants in the case.

Since taking office in 2017, DeVos has fought to overhaul Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities.

While it announced the changes on May 6, the Education Department called it a “historic action to strengthen Title IX protections for survivors of sexual misconduct and to restore due process in campus proceedings.”

Devos said in a statement at the time that “too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded” to sexual misconduct complaints.

“This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process,” she said. “We can and must continue to fight sexual misconduct in our nation’s schools, and this rule makes certain that fight continues.”

The new rules drew backlash from civil rights groups and Democratic leaders across the country, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who slammed the changes as “callous, cruel and dangerous, threatening to silence survivors and endanger vulnerable students in the middle of a public health crisis.”

A key provision of the regulations, which are set to take effect this fall, narrows the definition of sexual harassment to conduct that is severe enough to deny victims access to the college’s education programs. Dating violence, domestic violence and stalking were also added to the definition.

The suit was brought by California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

“These changes do nothing to serve our kids and will have immeasurable, tragic impacts on the survivors of these crimes. Students deserve to be safe from fear, harassment, and discrimination in our schools and on our campuses, and I urge the federal government to reconsider these damaging changes,” Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers said in a statement.

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