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Citing overreach and lack of due process, DeVos backs off Obama-era campus sexual assault procedures


In a retreat from the aggressive policies on campus sexual assault embraced by the U.S. Department of Education under Barack Obama, Betsy DeVos today announced her agency would draw up new guidelines for the nation's colleges saying, “…the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students… the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students.”

The Secretary of Education contends the approach advocated by the agency had trampled the rights of the accused and protracted the proceedings to the detriment of the victims as well. She pledged to work  to develop a "workable, effective and fair system."

Her plans to replace the existing guidelines drew immediate fire from women's advocates, who have fought to make colleges view sexual assaults as serious crimes.

“Don’t be duped by today’s announcement. What seems procedural is a blunt attack on survivors of sexual assault. It will discourage schools from taking steps to comply with the law — just at the moment when they are finally working to get it right. And it sends a frightening message to all students:  your government does not have your back if your rights are violated. This misguided approach signals a green light to sweep sexual assault further under the rug. We refuse to return to the days when schools could mistreat survivors with impunity,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center

Here is the ED excerpt of DeVos' remarks today to students and faculty at George Mason University:

Let me be clear at the outset: acts of sexual misconduct are reprehensible, disgusting, and unacceptable. They are acts of cowardice and personal weakness, often thinly disguised as strength and power. …

One assault is one too many. One aggressive act of harassment is one too many. One person denied due process is one too many. …

There is no way to avoid the devastating reality of campus sexual misconduct: lives have been lost. Lives of victims. And lives of the accused. …

We need to remember that we’re not just talking about faceless “cases.”  We are talking about people’s lives. Everything we do must recognize this before anything else. …

[T]he truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students. Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.

The current failed system left one student to fend for herself at a university disciplinary hearing. Without any legal training whatsoever, she had to prepare an opening statement, fix exhibits and find witnesses.

“I don’t think it’s the rape that makes the person a victim,” the student told a reporter. She said it is the failure of the system that turns a survivor into a victim. …

Washington’s push to require schools to establish these quasi-legal structures to address sexual misconduct comes up short for far too many students. The current system hasn’t won widespread support, nor has it inspired confidence in its so-called judgments. …

Survivors aren’t well-served when they are re-traumatized with appeal after appeal because the failed system failed the accused. And no student should be forced to sue their way to due process. …

For too long, rather than engage the public on controversial issues, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights has issued letters from the desks of un-elected and un-accountable political appointees. …

Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students. …

The era of “rule by letter” is over.

Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach. With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today. …

Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.

These are non-negotiable principles. …

A better way means that due process is not an abstract legal principle only discussed in lecture halls. Due process is the foundation of any system of justice that seeks a fair outcome. Due process either protects everyone, or it protects no one.

The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the “victim” only creates more victims. …

In order to ensure that America’s schools employ clear, equitable, just and fair procedures that inspire trust and confidence, we will launch a notice-and-comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties in developing a better way.

We will seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective and fair system. …

This is not about letting institutions off the hook. They still have important work to do.

A survivor told me that she is tired of feeling like the burden of ensuring her school addresses Title IX falls on her shoulders.

She is right. The burden is not hers, nor is it any student’s burden. …

The truth is: we must do better… for each other and with each other.

The full text of the Secretary's remarks can be found here.

 

 

 


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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.