Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declared Thursday that “the era of ‘rule by letter’ is over” as she announced plans to change the way colleges and universities handle allegations of sexual violence on campus.
She said Obama administration rules established in 2011 to guide schools as they investigate and resolve complaints of assault have failed to protect students and done a “disservice to everyone involved.”
“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,” she said in a speech at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.
Her comments signaled the possibility of a major shift in the way colleges enforce Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education.
Some saw the move as a way of silencing victims of sexual assault.
“Today, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos launched her latest and mean-spirited attack on students’ civil rights,” Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Thursday.
“Make no mistake — Secretary DeVos is seeking to silence the voices of survivors of sexual assault. The existing Title IX guidance is vital because it provides campuses the information they need to provide all students an educational environment free from sex discrimination and violence.”
People’s lives ruined
But others hailed the announcement, saying university rules need to be adjusted.
Deborah Gordon, a Bloomfield Hills attorney, has represented young men who allege they have been falsely accused of sexual assault by fellow college students.
“People’s lives are literally being ruined over the ridiculous things being said, with no evidence to back it up,” she said.
From a legal point of view, Gordon said people cannot be deprived of a property right without due process of law, and the courts have decided that an education at a public university is a property right.
“That means before you are thrown out on your rear end, you have to get notice of the charges against you and an opportunity to be heard and tell your side of the story,” said Gordon.
But that has not happened at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Gordon said, with separate policies created that apply only to people accused of sexual assault.
“In that policy, you are prohibited from questioning your accuser, or even knowing the names of witnesses,” Gordon said. “Why can’t they put questions to their accuser to find out if she’s telling the truth? The university has no answer for that.”
Asked about Gordon’s statements, MSU spokesman Kent Cassella addressed the DeVos announcement.
“We look forward to the notice and comment process announced by the secretary and will carefully review any new guidance that results from that process,” Cassella said.
UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said that contrary to Gordon’s statement, witnesses are named and shared in campus assault cases at UM.
“Effective July 1, 2016, the university identifies witnesses by name and their relationship to each person (at) the university, and (that) is shared with the parties in a draft investigative report,” Broekhuizen said. “In addition (although not a new practice), the parties may review the draft report and ‘provide feedback in response.’ ”
As for the DeVos decision, Broekhuizen said the university will follow its current policies and procedures for addressing campus sexual misconduct.
“We remain committed to making UM as safe as possible for students to live, learn and grow,” Broekhuizen said.
Developing new rules
DeVos didn’t detail how the rules will change. Instead, she said she would seek feedback from the public and universities, and develop new rules.
Michigan first lady Sue Snyder — who is planning a third sexual assault summit later this month at Eastern Michigan University — said in a statement she looks forward to working with DeVos.
“Today’s announcement from Secretary DeVos reaffirms the need for improvement in the process surrounding the way campus sexual assaults are handled and investigated,” Snyder said. “My focus as Michigan’s first lady continues to be raising awareness and preventing assaults from happening in the first place, while fostering an environment on campuses where survivors feel safe to come forward and have their voices heard.”
Debate has flared in recent years over the Obama-era rules, which reshaped how colleges enforce Title IX in cases of sexual assault.
The rules — set forth in a memo now known as the “Dear Colleague Letter” — told schools they must investigate and resolve all complaints of sexual assault, even if there is a separate criminal case. They also established what has become a polarizing standard of evidence used to judge cases.
Unlike in criminal courts, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, colleges were told to judge students based on whether it’s “more likely than not” they committed the offense.
Some advocacy groups said the rules have protected victims and forced schools to confront problems long kept quiet. Opponents said the rules lean against students accused of sexual assault, and pressure colleges to take strong action against the accused. Dozens of students have sued schools alleging their due-process rights were violated.
In her speech, DeVos described “increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines” that have harmed students on both sides of the debate. She criticized the standard of evidence and said the system has led schools to create “kangaroo courts” overseen by campus officials who don’t always have legal training.
“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” she said. “These are non-negotiable principles.”
At the same time, she said “acts of sexual misconduct are reprehensible, disgusting and unacceptable” and must be addressed head-on.
“Never again will these acts only be whispered about in closed-off counseling rooms or swept under the rug,” she said.
But she said the Obama guidelines for addressing complaints were burdensome and confusing.
Opponents of the Obama rules applauded the announcement and said it’s a good sign that change is coming. Supporters said they fear it could set back years of improvement.
Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said the speech “signals a green light to sweep sexual assault further under the rug.”
“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,” she said in a statement.
The speech drew about two dozen protesters who gathered outside the auditorium, including some women who said they were assaulted on their campuses.
Among them was Meghan Downey, 22, a recent graduate from the College of William & Mary, who said she doesn’t want the Trump administration to “attribute more validity to the voices of the accused.”
Detroit News Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski and Associated Press contributed.
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