DeVos, Sue Snyder to discuss campus sexual assaults

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plans to meet Thursday with Michigan first lady Sue Snyder.

The pair will sit down in Washington to discuss campus sexual assault prevention and how Michigan can be a model for other states, said Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder.

A Department of Education spokesman said Sue Snyder requested the meeting. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Last fall, Sue Snyder hosted Michigan’s second summit to find ways to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

Those gatherings seek to change the culture on college campuses through education and awareness, bringing together advocates, lawmakers, athletes and students to confront a problem that until recent years was largely stigmatized and not discussed openly on campus.

The state recently announced 18 community colleges and universities will receive a total $506,000 in grant funds to create sexual assault prevention programs on their campuses.

During her confirmation hearing this year, DeVos, who is from the Grand Rapids area, declined to commit to enforce Education Department guidance from 2011 for how colleges must address sexual assault on campus.

That guidance, issued by the Office for Civil Rights during the Obama administration, asked colleges to be more active in fighting sexual assault, treating it as a form of sexual harassment prohibited under the Title IX anti-discrimination law.

It urged campuses to promptly handle allegations of assault, and specified which standard of evidence to employ while investigating cases in internal proceedings, and what information should be shared with accusers and the accused.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, pressed DeVos at her hearing about whether she’d uphold the 2011 guidance, and DeVos said that would be “premature.”

“Senator, I know that there’s a lot of conflicting ideas and opinions around that guidance, and if confirmed I would look forward to working with you and your colleagues and understand the range of opinions and understand the issues from the higher ed institutions that are charged with resolving these and addressing them,” DeVos told Casey.

He then asked whether she would support retaining the “preponderance of the evidence” standard for internal proceedings (a lower threshold than used by some schools), but DeVos didn’t address the question.

“Assault in any form is never OK, and I just want to be clear on that,” DeVos responded. “And so, if confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim, the rights of the victims, as well as those who are accused.”

The Office for Civil Rights currently has more than 300 open investigations into potential Title IX violations involving sexual assault allegations. In Michigan, OCR has investigated the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University and Alma College.

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