New Title IX changes turn universities into courtrooms

Social Justice Week took place at Sonoma State University last week with speakers from different communities and backgrounds speaking on important issues facing our world today. Keynote speakers, panels and performances were held on campus and raised awareness of many social justice issues in our current society. 

“Social Justice Week covers multiple sessions on various social justice issues, many of which are rarely discussed on campus,” said Sociology professor and Social Justice Week organizer Peter Phillips. “As for sexual assault, women need to understand their rights and ability to safely report.”

On Feb. 27, Zach Neeley used his voice to inform students and faculty about the harrowing changes of Title IX that will soon be coming to our campus. Focusing on the sensitive topic of sexual assault, Neeley shared his knowledge with Sonoma State in the hopes that we understand what can happen to us as college students.

“As an advocate for victims and as an attorney with a history of working for marginalized people, I believe these changes are bad. We need to figure out what we are going to do about them.”

- Zach Neeley, Prevention Specialist for Verity, 

on nationwide changes to campus Title IX rules.

Neeley is a Prevention Specialist at Verity, Sonoma County’s rape crisis trauma and healing center. Verity provides counseling, advocacy, intervention and education in the community to help eliminate all forms of sexual violence. 

In his lecture, Neeley used his experience as an attorney for legal aid and an employee at Verity to speak about what changes are being made to the Title IX policy and how they will affect Sonoma State

In November of last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a rewrite of the federal rules governing campus sexual assault. The regulations include establishing a narrower definition of sexual harassment, relieving colleges of the responsibility of investigating off-campus incidents and tightening reporting requirements.

“As an advocate for victims and as an attorney with a history of working for marginalized people, I believe these changes are bad,” Neeley said. “We need to figure out what we are going to do about them.”

One of the policy changes that has faced intense criticism from Neeley and many women’s groups, is the new rule that schools would be required to hold live hearings through third parties, which would be conducted by a neutral decision maker and conducted with a presumption of innocence. 

If someone is sexually assaulted and they report it to their school, in order for the school to be allowed to discipline the person accused, they have to appear at a live hearing and be willing to be questioned by an attorney.

“These changes are coming to Sonoma State,” said Neeley. “People are going to have to be willing to be cross-examined.”

Cross-examination can be damaging to victims and put them in a position of vulnerability by having them recall what traumatic events happened while being asked possible distressing questions by the opposing attorney.

“Having a student cross-examined by an attorney is just difficult to watch,” said Courtney Bullard, a former general counsel at the University of Tennessee, in an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. “It doesn’t feel right in an educational setting. It doesn’t feel appropriate.”

Many cases of sexual assault or misconduct against students happen off campus, including off-campus housing, parties, Greek houses, etc. Now schools will be allowed but won’t be required to investigate those cases, that will be up to local law enforcement. 

“The bottom line is that by allowing schools to use this new process and evidentiary standard, this rule would make it harder for survivors of sexual misconduct to achieve justice,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va, in a press release.