California Forum

Campuses need to protect students against sexual violence. Here’s how California can help

Protesters rally against proposed changes to Title IX before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University’s Arlington, Va., campus. DeVos plans to end the Obama administration’s rules for investigating allegations of sexual violence on campus. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Protesters rally against proposed changes to Title IX before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University’s Arlington, Va., campus. DeVos plans to end the Obama administration’s rules for investigating allegations of sexual violence on campus. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) AP

A bill related to Title IX – the federal civil rights law prohibiting gender discrimination in education – quietly moved through the Legislature this year.

That lack of fanfare changed last week, when 30 California congressional members sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown urging him to sign the bill.

Senate Bill 169 (Jackson and De León), now on the governor’s desk, would codify Title IX Obama Administration guidelines on how schools, colleges and universities should respond to reports of sexual violence, guidelines in use since 2011. Putting them into state law builds a firewall against federal rollbacks and ensures campuses remain safe.

SB 169 gained new urgency when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced a weakening of Title IX policies, replacing them with guidance that favors perpetrators and undoes progress addressing a problem so significant it has been called an epidemic. One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, often leading to lifelong impacts.

Why is a process for investigating complaints so important? Because it ensures fairness and accountability. The goal of SB 169 and the Obama-era guidelines – issued when many colleges were failing to discipline students – is a process that takes victims seriously and holds perpetrators accountable.

Appropriate behavior has always been a condition of staying in college. Colleges discipline and expel students for violence, poor grades, cheating and plagiarism. Title IX demands that students threatening a young woman’s or young man’s right to an education with sexual violence be held accountable, too.

SB 169 establishes procedures for investigating violations, sanctioning offenders, and reviewing appeals that help ensure due process for all.

SB 169 also requires that schools use a standard of proof known as the “preponderance of evidence,” when investigating a complaint, meaning the misconduct occurred “more likely than not.” It is the same standard used to investigate non-sexual assaults and other college misconduct.

In contrast, DeVos proposes a “clear and convincing” standard that discourages survivors from coming forward. Students who commit sexual assault would face less scrutiny, and potentially less accountability, than a student who punches another classmate or cheats on a test. Victims forced to attend classes alongside their rapists will feel the betrayal of this new policy most acutely.

The education community has broadly supported SB 169, but there have been some inaccurate claims from critics.

One critic has wrongly claimed that 6-year-olds could be expelled for kissing classmates under this bill. But schools cannot legally expel students that young.

SB 169 also does not change schools’ ability to discipline older students. To imply that administrators cannot distinguish between a kiss and sexual assault demeans them and the seriousness of sexual violence.

This same critic argues that SB 169 will deal disciplinary blows disproportionately to young black men. There is no data to support this, yet research shows that sexual harassment and violence against black and brown girls begins young, and that girls are punished far more often than the boys who harass them.

California must lead the nation in protecting victims and keeping campuses safe. We urge the governor to sign SB 169 into law.

Hannah-Beth Jackson is a California State Senator and author of SB 169. Noreen Farrell is the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a national civil rights organization dedicated to advancing opportunities for women and girls. Reach them at senator.jackson@senate.ca.gov and nfarrell@equalrights.org.

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