Senator Questions Education Dept.’s Authority on Sexual Assault

The Department of Education has been criticized in the past for overstepping its authority.

A U.S. Senator publicly questioned whether the Department of Education has abused its authority by guiding college’s responses to sexual assault.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) sent a letter asking the department to justify its “Dear Colleague” letters under U.S. law on Jan. 7, according to the Washington Post.

Dear Colleague letters, which are also used by Congress, have been used by the federal government in recent years to “clarify existing laws” regarding how schools are required to respond to reports of sexual assault, as well as other matters, such as student privacy and bullying.

Lankford echoed the sentiments of other critics of the department when he argued that the letters created such impactful new rules that they amounted to new regulations. By law, regulations must go through a time-consuming process that includes a proposal and comment section to gather public input.

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The department has not responded to Lankford, but has said in the past that their letters are simply explaining the implementation of Title IX to schools that receive federal funding. Still, the department has shown a willingness to punish schools that do not follow rules laid out in Dear Colleague letters by fining them and by threatening to pull their federal funding.

Two of the most controversial Dear Colleague letters came in 2010 and 2011, when the department explained what acts fall under sexual harassment and how students should be punished. In those letters, the department said students should be punished if the majority of the evidence indicated he or she was guilty, a rule multiple students have challenged in court unsuccessfully.

RELATED: How to Comply With the Dept. of Ed’s Title IX Sexual Violence Guidance

Although the letters are not legally binding, in many cases colleges have little choice but to follow them because they fear the repercussions.

The Education Department said it “looks forward to responding” to Lankford’s letter.

About the Author

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Zach Winn is a journalist living in the Boston area. He was previously a reporter for Wicked Local and graduated from Keene State College in 2014, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minoring in political science.

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