Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which investigates violations of federal discrimination laws, closed thousands more Title IX complaints than it received during the first two fiscal years of the Trump presidency. 
  • In the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years, there was an 80% increase in the number of Title IX cases the administration resolved that involved a school changing its policies or practices, the office’s annual report shows. 
  • The department has proposed drastic changes for how colleges should handle reports of sexual violence under Title IX, the federal sex discrimination law. The final version of these rules is expected to be released soon. 

Dive Insight:

A schism emerged after President Barack Obama’s Education Department published guidance in 2011 about how colleges should address Title IX cases. Supporters of the Obama-era policies credited them with giving sexual assault survivors unprecedented protections, while critics felt they were unfair to students accused of misconduct, in some cases depriving them of constitutional due process.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos removed the Obama guidance in 2017 and published draft regulations that would create a courtroom-style method of resolving campus sexual violence cases. 

But DeVos did more than just introduce new Title IX rules, said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, in an interview with Education Dive. She made clear early in her tenure that she would streamline resolution processes, Lake said. 

For instance, in 2017, the Education Department directed OCR officials to stop looking into systemic issues at institutions when investigating Title IX complaints — an element of the Obama administration’s enforcement. Prior to the coronavirus taking hold in the U.S., the department was also trying to clear out a backlog of Title IX cases through mediation.

The rapid-fire approach to closing cases is evident in OCR’s annual report. In it, Kenneth Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote that the office had “improved productivity and efficiency while maintaining high-quality standards.”

OCR received 7,138 Title IX complaints in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 combined, and it resolved 13,234 complaints during that period. The report does not break out data on postsecondary institutions, so that number also includes complaints in K-12 schools. 

Most of the violations concerned potential sex discrimination in athletics programs. OCR fielded 3,596 athletics-related complaints in 2017 and 2018, and it closed 10,622. The office accepted 1,745 complaints of sexual harassment and violence and resolved 1,822 cases.

The number of sexual violence cases that were closed during that time and involved a college changing its policies skyrocketed. Colleges made policy changes in 86 resolved sexual misconduct cases in fiscal 2018, compared to 14 in 2017 and five in 2016. Since 2009, the most cases resolved with changes in a single year was 17.

While DeVos hasn’t carried out the same comprehensive Title IX investigations as the Obama administration did, she has come down hard on colleges in a few notable cases, Lake said.

The Ed Department fined Michigan State University a record $4.5 million last year for how it handled complaints of sexual abuse by former sports doctor Larry Nassar.

More recently, the department found that Penn State University didn’t properly respond to sexual violence complaints in the years following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It forced the institution to make significant changes to its Title IX procedures.

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