New rules issued, Part I: The exemptions

Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos released the long awaited changes to Title IX, set to go into effect in August. There are many things to be concerned about, but given that we are all doing our best to manage all the concerns we're facing these days, I am going focus on just one today: the provision that coaches are not mandatory reporters of sexual assault.

This change is horribly unethical, dangerous, and inconsistent.

First, the rule change--which the Department of Education has said is legally binding, going against precedent regarding Title IX rule changes in the last decade--also potentially includes faculty and staff, in and outside of athletics departments. Schools will get to choose who is a mandatory reporter. Some say most schools will not change current rules about everyone (except counselors and members of the clergy) being mandatory reporters. But I think it is striking that coaches and other members of athletics departments were specifically singled out as potentially being exempt. The new rule says only that Title IX coordinators and others with "authority to institute corrective measures" are required reporters. (I address that categorization below.)

The specific choice to potentially exempt coaches is inconsistent with common practice about mandatory reporting. Coaches are mandatory reporters of abuse at the youth and high school levels because part of their job is maintaining the welfare of children. At the college level, we are not dealing with children (legally speaking), but coaches have a responsibility for the welfare of their students and the students within their communities, i.e., college campuses.

I do not know if this rule change is about the perception that college sports are minor leagues/semi-professional and thus the coach is merely an employee rather than a contributing member of an educational community. But I find it hard to justify that coaches are so different and/or detached that they can be released from this responsibility that the majority of other employees have.

To be clear, this is a responsibility that I believe members of the academic community should have and exempting faculty and staff would also be wrong. It is part of the job. It requires actual labor in the form of mandatory training. While employees often bemoan this training because on college campuses many see it is as uncompensated labor (a not unreasonable assessment based on my experiences because of the way it is presented), it is both ethically necessary and educational.

This is because, in addition to the educational mission, colleges and universities are required to keep their students safe. We have very large rule books that outline violations of student (and employee) conduct. The rationale behind those rules--many of which do not involve illegal activity (i.e., lighting a candle in the residence halls)--is to keep individuals and the community safe.

That's it. Schools have a responsibility to keep the members of their community safe. The rule change is inconsistent with current norms and prevailing philosophies. And it is dangerous.

For one, studies and investigations are showing that athletes commit sexual violence in greater numbers than their non-athlete peers. Coaches are more likely to be the people who hear about these crimes. And now the DOE is telling them they can handle those reports however they choose.

Two, we already have evidence of the dangers of coaches who do not report. How many women and girls could have been spared the horrific abuse of Larry Nasser if the coaches who were told about his assaults on athletes at Michigan State had actually reported it? Hundreds. What about Ohio State, which just made an initial settlement with 350 former members of the OSU community? Same.

Add up the cases from all over college sports where even a single accusation went unrecorded. Given the data, we know that sexual offenders are often repeat offenders. So likely thousands of cases of sexual assault could have prevented if people had done what they were supposed to do. And now the Department of Education is saying they are not required to do that anymore. What will those numbers look like?

To have these data and not consider it is simply unethical. This is a dangerous rule change and the rationale behind it fails to consider current practices and the need for cultural change.

The DOE says that exempting coaches and others means that victims who do not want to to make official charges or trigger an investigation have a greater opportunity to do so. But good training and reporting practices already account for this. Mandatory reporters, with the right training, know where to direct students if they do not want their allegation documented. And good Title IX coordinators know how to maintain confidentiality when they receive a report.

Yes, there are many schools who do a bad job, because they do not take the issues seriously. Exempting more people from reporting is not the way to make schools behave better. It just lets them off the hook. People who are mandatory reporters ARE taking "corrective actions" when they report. They are initiating a chain of events that leads to investigations and reporting and sometimes hearings. They are illustrating that everyone on campus has a stake in this issue which is one way to change the campus climate. 

The only people protected by this rule change are those who will not be held responsible for sexual assault and those that can now legally cover up of those crimes.