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Education Secretary Reviewing Sexual Assault Policies

Columbia University last week settled a lawsuit brought by a former international student who says the school failed to protect him.

The settlement follows a complaint by former student Paul Nungesser of Germany, who said the New York school allowed a student to carry a mattress around the university, accusing Nungesser of being a rapist.

This happened, Nungesser’s lawyers said, even though Nungesser was cleared by Columbia of wrongdoing.

Columbia University said Nungesser’s time at Columbia had “became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience.” Columbia said Nungesser is now attending a film school in Germany.

The woman who accused Nungesser of rape had charged Columbia of being “more concerned about their public image than keeping people safe.”

Announcement of the Columbia settlement comes as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos decides how to balance the interests of sexual assault victims against those accused of sexual assault.

DeVos says she is considering changing federal rules established by the Obama administration to enforce a law known as Title IX that covers sexual assaults at American colleges.

“We need to get this right. We need to protect all students. And we need to do it quickly,” she told reporters last week. “It’s obvious the toll this places on everyone involved.”

Demonstrators warn about weakening rules

Maya Weinstein, 23, and others demonstrated outside the Education Department last week as DeVos met with sexual assault victims and people who said they were falsely accused of sexual assault.

Weinstein said she was raped by a fellow student during her first year at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

“It is interesting to me how sexual assault is viewed as a different issue than any other crime,” Weinstein told VOA. “The false reporting statistics are comparable to that of someone saying they were robbed and we don’t question those who come forward to say they were robbed.”

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, between two percent and eight percent of sexual assault charges are false, comparable to other crimes.

Devos, who was named education secretary by President Donald Trump, has said rules established by the Obama administration might not protect the rights of people falsely accused. She spoke about her “listening session” on July 13 with students who say they were falsely accused.

“It was clear that their stories have not often been told, and that there are lives that have been ruined and lives that are lost in the process,” she said.

But DeVos also said sexual assault is a serious problem.

“We can’t go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug,” DeVos said, meaning failing to fully investigate charges of sexual assault.

Alyssa Peterson said she was a victim of sexual assault while a student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Like many victims, she decided not to bring charges against her attacker because she was not confident the process would be fair.

A 2015 report by the Association of American Universities (AAU) said that half of college students did not report incidents of sexual assault because they did not think it was "serious enough." Others said they were embarrassed or thought "nothing would be done."

AAU is an organization that studies issues of higher education.

Even with the stronger Obama administration guidelines, punishment for sexual assault remain weak, Peterson said. She said few students are removed from college for sexually assaulting fellow students. Peterson is a Yale University law school student and working with a group, Know Your Title IX, which supports student victims of sexual assault.

Official apologizes for comments

Just before last week’s listening session, Candice Jackson, the Education Department’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, apologized for remarks she had made about sexual assault.

Jackson told The New York Times that 90 percent of sexual assault charges involve two drunken students and a student deciding “our last sleeping together was not quite right.”

“What I said was flippant, and I am sorry,” Jackson said, adding that she was a rape victim.

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