Steve April 6, 2021
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The Education Department announced plans Tuesday to hold a public hearing on how schools ought to handle sexual misconduct cases as the first step in a planned overhaul of Title IX regulations.

In a letter released by the Education Department, the hearing is described as a chance for students, parents, school officials and advocates to weigh in before the Biden administration offers its proposal for how K-12 schools and colleges receiving public funding must respond to allegations of sexual assault and harassment. The department has not yet announced a timeline for the hearing but plans to share more details in the coming weeks. The hearing will occur over multiple days and include a virtual component, a department official said.

After the hearing, the department intends to begin a formal process known as “proposed rule-making” to rewrite the Title IX rules, which would include another round of public comments.

The department will also issue question-and-answer-style guidance in the coming weeks to advise schools how to adhere to the current Title IX rules.

During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to scrap the Trump administration’s new regulation on campus sexual misconduct, which took effect in August under Title IX, a gender equity law. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had said she had designed the new rules to offer a clearer, fairer process to adjudicate sexual assault complaints; victims’ rights advocates criticized the regulation for narrowing the definition of sexual harassment and limiting the incidents schools could investigate.

Biden signed an executive order last month directing Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to review and consider rewriting the regulation.

“Today’s action is the first step in making sure that the Title IX regulations are effective and are fostering safe learning environments for our students while implementing fair processes,” Cardona said in a statement Tuesday morning.

Cardona has not indicated the specific policies the Biden administration intends to propose or change.

Democratic lawmakers and advocates for sexual assault victims had already started pressuring the Biden administration to quickly act on changing the Title IX rules. Some welcomed Tuesday’s announcement.

“This is a critical next step in protecting survivors in school and ensuring Title IX’s promise of ending sex discrimination is realized,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. “So I’d see this step as a victory and a testament to the student survivors who have continued to so bravely fight for campuses where they can be safe and treated fairly and with dignity.”

Federal rule-making can be a lengthy process — sometimes taking over a year — but it is more lasting than executive orders or policy statements and more difficult for future administrations to reverse. Under DeVos, the Education Department used the same rule-making process to set up the current Title IX regulation on campus sexual misconduct.

The framework implemented by DeVos prevents schools from launching Title IX investigations into allegations of assaults that take place off campus, uses a narrower definition of sexual harassment compared to workplace standards and requires schools to presume that accused students are innocent at the outset of investigations.

DeVos’ rules were widely condemned by victims’ rights advocates, who said some elements, such as requiring colleges to allow accused students to cross-examine their accusers through third parties, would discourage people from reporting assaults. Many trade groups for K-12 schools and universities were also critical, arguing that the rules would turn their institutions into courtrooms.

Advocates for accused students praised DeVos’ policies as ensuring evenhanded responses to assault allegations on campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that focuses on due process on college campuses, said last month that it would not rule out suing to block a Biden administration rewrite of Title IX rules.

Image: Jessic SimeoneTyler Kingkade

Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter for NBC News, based in Los Angeles.

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