Regardless of DeVos' plan, York College won't budge on sexual assault policies

Karen Galbraith, with Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, speaks during Take Back the Night in Waldner Performing Arts Center at York College of Pennsylvania in Spring Garden Township, Wednesday, April 11, 2018. The event is one of many activities being held during York College's Week of Action, April 9-13, in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Despite critics' fears that proposed federal changes to campus sexual assault policies will lessen school responsibility and put victims at risk, a York College official said its students need not worry.

The college will not be making any changes to its policies, regardless of what happens with the proposed changes, according to Ashton Whitmoyer, the school's coordinator of sexual and relationship violence prevention.


She said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' plan for how schools should respond to complaints represents a "bottom line" of what must be done.

Schools are still free to make their own policies, and York College does not plan to deviate from its current standards, she said.

"They’re understandably alarming for people who are victim advocates," Whitmoyer said of the new regulations, but they're also under a 60-day review period.

The public has until Jan. 28 to provide feedback, and educational institutions such as Penn State York are currently combing through the document, according to a statement from the school.

Local advocates respond: Penn State York plans to submit comment in conjunction with the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public Land Grant Universities and other national higher education organizations, the statement reads.

It also notes that the university remains committed to "raise awareness and address misconduct that may arise on all Penn State campuses." 

More:York College plans 'Week of Action' for sexual assault awareness

More:York College receives 2nd state grant to combat sexual assault

Background: The regulations update Title IX, a 1972 law that covers sex-based discrimination in elementary schools, secondary schools and colleges that receive federal dollars, and includes procedures for investigating and reporting claims of sexual misconduct.

More:Kavanaugh case unfolds as DeVos readies sexual assault rules

The proposed changes include more rights for the accused, including the ability to cross examine the accuser and an option to use a higher standard of proof.

Also, schools would only be required to report complaints received through a Title IX coordinator or an official who has authority to institute corrective measures, which Whitmoyer said would not include sources of confidential reporting such as clergy or counselors.

Schools would only be responsible for incidents that occurred on campus or locations overseen by the school — versus current standards of any location involving a student — and would only be held liable if they respond in a manner that is "deliberately indifferent."

And the new regulations updated the definition of assault from “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to "unwelcome sexual conduct that’s so severe it effectively denies the victim access to the school or its programs," according to The Associated Press.

Unfair to victim: Opponents have said the changes could re-traumatize victims and dissuade them from reporting while also lessening school accountability.

YWCA York's chief services officer, Heather Seton, said the organization is nonpartisan, so its main concern is ensuring victims have a voice.

Seton and community outreach advocate Katie Hershey said DeVos' regulations drew a lot of questions — will faculty and staff who receive complaints still be required to report them to a higher authority, and if an incident did not occur on campus, will the school still provide students with protections, such as a change of classes or dorms?

The Education Department says the proposal gives schools the flexibility to support victims apart from formal complaints or investigations, The Associated Press reported.

Re-traumatizing is definitely a concern, said Hershey, who added that without a judge to set boundaries, things might go too far during the cross-examination.

"Court proceedings are often re-traumatizing even with that," Seton added.

Hershey said she would not want the experience to contribute to victims not reporting, and Whitmoyer agreed.

"I think that reporting in general is difficult," Whitmoyer said, adding that 95 percent of victims do not report, and it's important to recognize that people are rarely falsely accused. The 95 percent statistic comes from a late 2009 study of campus sexual assault by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. 

More:State: York schools led Pa. in sex assault reports in 3 of 10 years

Adding balance: Supporters of the changes countered that they actually add balance to a system that favors the accuser.

Whitmoyer disagreed.

"I think that the current procedure that’s in place does a good job at making sure both sides are even," she said. If the proposed changes are made, she said, that's when it will become unbalanced — in favor of the accused.  

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.