Proposed federal sexual assault policy unlikely to change Geneseo rules, but may alienate victims, bolster accused

The United States Department of Education introduced a set of rules that would change the way colleges assess sexual assault accusations, according to The New York Times. Despite this change, state law will likely preserve how Geneseo approaches sexual misconduct cases, according to Title IX Coordinator Tamara Kenney. 

The proposed rules would both redefine what is considered sexual harassment and raise the standard that colleges use to address accusations, according to The New York Times. An internal U.S. Department of Education analysis determined that the change would reduce investigations into sexual misconduct by 39 percent, The New York Times reported. 

Kenney felt that the shift in priorities from victims of sexual misconduct to people accused of the act is misguided. 

“I don’t think that Betsy DeVos has had enough education on this,” Kenney said. “Any time we start rolling back protections, we’re going to get ourselves in trouble. It’s very scary to think that one of the recommendations is that we don’t deal with off-campus assaults because our off-campus is one street away.” 

Due to New York state’s Enough is Enough law, the proposed national policy will have a lesser impact on Geneseo and other New York colleges, according to Kenney. 

“We probably are not going to see a whole lot of change in New York,” Kenney said. “We’ve got some pretty strong guidelines from the governor about how we’re supposed to respond to [misconduct complaints], so I don’t anticipate a lot of changes on-campus.” 

Currently, Geneseo assesses allegations of sexual harassment with a “preponderance of evidence” standard, according to Kenney. This mandates that a college conduct board considers an accusation accurate if it is more likely to have happened than not. 

The Department of Education’s proposed rules would mandate that colleges use a “clear and convincing standard.” This means that allegations would be considered accurate only if the conduct board had a significant amount of evidence before the accused individual receives a punishment, according to Kenney. 

Unless New York state law moves away from the Enough is Enough law, Geneseo will likely continue to follow the preponderance of evidence standard, Kenney said. 

Psychology major senior Alexandra Relyea similarly feels that the direction of federal education policy may increase difficulties for sexual harassment victims. 

“People are already scared to come forward with [sexual misconduct], why would you make things harder?” Relyea said. “It’s already so underreported, especially at colleges.”  

At Geneseo, like many other similar colleges, Relyea believes that sexual harassment and misconduct can be difficult for the administration to adequately address.

“I think sexual assault is very pushed on the rug [at Geneseo],” Relyea said. “I think it’s hard [to talk about] though because there’s such privacy issues, like people don’t necessarily want to come forward and say things that happened. 

Overall, Kenney expressed concerns that the shift in federal education policy could dissuade affected students of sexual harassment or assault from coming forward. 

“I don’t want anything that’s put in place that might discourage folks from coming forward,” Kenney said. “Any type of barrier is really going to not allow the college to offer support services to those people who have experienced these acts and sometimes that results in that person leaving our school … we want to see a fair, neutral investigation with a fair outcome.”