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US Education Secretary Calls for Changes in How Colleges Handle Sex Assault


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about campus sexual assault and enforcement of Title IX, the federal law that bars discrimination in education on the basis of gender, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus.

The U.S. education secretary says changes are planned to federal guidelines for how colleges and universities handle sexual assault and harassment issues.

Besty DeVos' push to revisit the rules opens a debate over how schools should investigate cases of sexual assault, a process that for years has been linked to whether universities are following federal guidelines prohibiting discrimination based on gender. Critics of the current system include DeVos, who says they need to change to better balance the rights of victims and those who are accused of sexual assault.

Her opponents say the current guidelines, which have been in place since 2011 are effective in explaining to colleges and universities their role in preventing and handling security harassment and violence on campus.

What will change?

Schools are required to offer a clear way for students and employees to file complaints and hold fair, open campus investigations and criminal investigations by local police. They must also provide special medical services for victims.

If they fail to meet these and other requirements, the Education Department has the right to block their federal funding. However the federal government has not used that leverage against any school.

DeVos has not explained in detail how the rules will change. She said her office will ask the public and universities for help in developing new ones.

Critics of the Obama administration policy cheered the announcement, saying the rules are biased against the accused.

Andrew Miltenberg, a lawyer who represents students accused of sexual assault, said he was glad to see the government recognize that schools had been mistreating the accused. Critics say that the legal processes that some schools put in place to deal with accusations of sexual assault fall short of standards of due process guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

Other groups oppose the proposed changes, saying that the process will weaken schools' commitment to prosecuting

"I really fear that DeVos will take us back to the days when schools [often] violated survivors' rights and pushed sexual assault under the rug," said Sejal Singh, a policy coordinator for "Know your IX." Other members of the group said the secretary is sending a message that no one will hold schools responsible for protecting students.

Other critics say the policy changes will favor men, since most accusations of sexual assault involve men as the accused. DeVos has rejected criticism that portrays the issue as one pitting men against women.

"Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously,” DeVos said. “Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not [already decided]."

At the same time, she made clear that "acts of sexual misconduct are … unacceptable" and must be dealt with directly.

Protests on Campus

Sonja Breda, 23, right, holds a sign saying "Stop Betsy" as a group of survivors of sexual violence and their supporters gather to protest proposed changes to Title IX before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Sept. 7, 2017, at the George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus.
Sonja Breda, 23, right, holds a sign saying "Stop Betsy" as a group of survivors of sexual violence and their supporters gather to protest proposed changes to Title IX before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Sept. 7, 2017, at the George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus.

When DeVos spoke on the issue last week at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, about 25 protesters gathered outside the venue. Some were women who said they had been assaulted on their campuses.

Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University near Boston, said her school would continue to follow the Obama administration rules. Terry Hartle, senior vice president of American Council on Education, an organization of about 1,800 college presidents, said many schools will likely do the same.

Brown University in Rhode Island released a statement saying that because of Title IX rules under the previous administration, it and other schools had increased its response and treatment of sexual assault cases.

"We are committed to ensuring that our policies and processes comply with federal requirements and guidance, and our dedication to this commitment remains strong," the press release said. "We will … [maintain] a campus culture in which all community members are equally valued, respected and safe."

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