In remarks today, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that the Department of Education plans to initiate a public comment period to begin the process of adopting new regulations on campus sexual violence and harassment prevention and response. The new regulations would supplant existing Department subregulatory guidance (most notably the April 4, 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” and the 2014 “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence” issued by the Office for Civil Rights). The timing of the Department’s rescission of the existing guidance is not entirely clear. Initially it appeared that, contrary to expectations in some quarters, the existing guidance would remain in effect pending completion of the rulemaking process (and that institutions could and should continue to follow it in the interim). However, following Secretary DeVos’s remarks, the Department indicated that it would issue new “information” about how institutions should comply with their Title IX obligations pending completion of the rulemaking process.
The content and significance of any regulations that might ultimately be issued is, of course, difficult to predict and will depend at least in part on the nature of public comments that the Department receives. However, based upon recent statements by Secretary DeVos and Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson, institutions can likely expect any new regulations to address, among other things, the rights of students accused under campus disciplinary processes (potentially in a manner akin to some of the respondents’ rights provisions of New York State’s so-called “Enough is Enough” legislation of 2015).
The new regulations will add to the existing patchwork quilt of legal and regulatory requirements to which institutions are subject in this area. Notably, certain federal requirements with respect to campus sexual violence policies and procedures (e.g., the requirement that students be permitted the assistance of an “advisor of choice” in connection with campus disciplinary proceedings) arise not from the Department’s subregulatory guidance, but from the 2014 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) amendments to the Clery Act. These requirements would be unaffected by any regulations the Department may adopt. In addition, institutions in states such as New York, California and Illinois will also need to assess and resolve potential conflicts between the federal regulations and state law sexual violence statutes.
Needless to say, today’s announcement makes the future course of sexual violence prevention and response on college and university campuses an unpredictable proposition. One thing is certain, however: institutions can expect, yet again, the need to review and revise their policies and procedures as they have done so many times before based on a seemingly never-ending succession of legislative and regulatory pronouncements.