Attorney General James Asks Court to Immediately Halt Trump Admin Rule That Makes Students More Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James and Corporation Counsel for the City of New York James E. Johnson, on behalf of New York state and the New York City Department of Education, have taken action to protect millions of students across the country — including more than three million in New York state and 1.1 million specifically in New York City — against sexual harassment and sexual assault, which impedes many students’ ability to access education. Attorney General James and Corporation Counsel Johnson filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to stop the U.S. Department of Education and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from implementing a new Trump Administration rule that will hinder how educational institutions investigate, address, and remedy sexual harassment in schools, colleges, and universities before the next school year starts this fall. The new rule will undo protections required by Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which has been a crucial tool for addressing and eradicating discrimination on the basis of sex for all students in federally funded education programs and activities for nearly 50 years, and has protected the most vulnerable populations in the school system, including women, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities.

“We are asking the court to halt this rule before students go back to school this fall and face the increased threat of sexual harassment brought on by President Trump and his administration’s dangerous policies,” said Attorney General James. “Harassment should never be a prerequisite for obtaining an education, so this fight is about ensuring our institutions of learning remain safe spaces, free of the threat of sexual harassment and assault. Survivors deserve to be believed, deserve to be respected, and deserve to have the opportunity to tell their stories, so we will continue fighting to ensure that never ends.”

“We ask the court to halt the implementation of this new rule which will make it harder for the NYC Department of Education to prevent, promptly investigate, and appropriately address complaints of sexual harassment involving students,” said Corporation Counsel Johnson. “The rule will force young children to participate in an adversarial grievance procedure that is not developmentally appropriate or suitable for young school students. For the sake of the city’s 1.1 million public school students, this harmful new rule must be stopped.”

In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was signed into law, stating that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” All educational institutions — including both public and private — that receive federal funds are required to follow the law, meaning that almost all public and private colleges and universities must abide by Title IX regulations.

Despite nearly five decades of established policy, last month, in the midst of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education issued a final rule that will — this August — limit the protections against sexual harassment for the more than 50 million students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States and the approximately 20 million students enrolled in colleges and universities across the nation.

After the Trump Administration announced the rule, Attorney General James filed a lawsuit, and was later joined by Corporation Counsel Johnson, where the two sought to stop the rule’s implementation. The motion for a preliminary injunction seeks to block the rule from taking effect while the case makes its way through the courts on the grounds that it will likely subject students who are victims of sexual harassment to significant, irreparable harm. Additionally, the rule immediately imposes significant programmatic and administrative burdens upon New York state and New York City, the educational institutions they operate and govern, and other schools across New York and the nation. Further, the rule interferes with schools’ ability to educate their students during the COVID-19 pandemic by diverting resources to implementing the wide-ranging, onerous requirements of the rule by the August 14, 2020 effective date.

Despite laws currently in place, the majority of students who experience sexual harassment, including sexual violence, do not report this conduct to law enforcement or to their schools. According to statistics by the U.S. Department of Justice, only 20 percent of female students aged 18 to 24 who experienced sexual violence ever reported this conduct, but the final rule will further exacerbate this reality, given its impermissibly restrictive definitions of sexual harassment and limitations on actionable sex discrimination.

Before this rule was finalized, Attorney General James attempted to engage with the Trump Administration by submitting a comment letter to Secretary DeVos, in January 2019, over the Department of Education’s efforts to roll back key protections of Title IX for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses, as did nearly 125,000 other institutions and actors in New York and across the United States.

This matter is being handled by Senior Trial Counsel Joseph Wardenski, Special Counsel Morenike Fajana, and Chief Counsel for Federal Initiatives Matthew Colangelo — all of the Executive Division; and Assistant Attorneys General Amanda Meyer and Lindsay McKenzie, as well as Deputy Bureau Chief Elena Goldstein — all of the Civil Rights Bureau. The Civil Rights Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice. Both the Division for Social Justice and the Executive Division are overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.

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