U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is moving in the wrong direction by imposing new standards for combating sexual violence on college campuses.
She said in July that she’d launch a listening tour before scrapping federal guidelines put in place in 2011 to ensure that universities comply with Title IX obligations regarding rape, assault and harassment. She indicated earlier this month that she’d wait to impose new guidance until after a notice-and-comment process.
Yet she announced last week that schools are now free to demand “clear and convincing evidence” before punishing students accused of sexual assault, rather than the current standard known as a “preponderance of evidence.”
Disturbingly, DeVos continues to show she’s more about dissolving protections than safeguarding victims.
The “preponderance” standard, DeVos has suggested, is unfair to students accused of sexual assault. She’s right that there have been a handful of false accusations, but this is an issue where context matters and the history around this issue is critical.
For years, women have been afraid to come forward because schools have demonstrated their unwillingness to take sexual assault allegations seriously.
Yes, the system must ensure fair treatment for all parties. But the scales have systematically been too tipped at many universities against sexual assault survivors. Documented reports show that women’s stories have been habitually swept under the rug or that administrations reacted to allegations of assault by blaming the female students themselves.
So precisely what reason is there to trust that hardening the standard of proof is moving the bar in the right direction? This only invites campuses to keep these cases in the dark — because it’s often in their best interest to do so.
We agree that some tweaks to the guidelines are warranted. Some universities are getting tripped up on the mechanics of the mandates; others lack the resources and tools needed to do the work properly. But that’s no reason to completely water down policies that finally provided long-overdue federal support for victims — especially before hearing all sides of this issue.
DeVos also has eliminated a requirement that investigations be completed in 60 days, instead suggesting they can be “reasonably prompt.” She’s specified that mediation be allowed if both parties agree. Mediation was not permitted under the Obama-administration guidelines because of concerns that women would feel unduly pressured to participate in a process designed to go light on the alleged perpetrator.
DeVos should have left the Obama-administration guidelines in place until the conclusion of her promised listening tour and comment period. Changing the rules mid-process does nothing but create more confusion on how universities should handle these cases.
We fear that though these are described as “temporary” guidelines, they will become permanent. That would be a major setback for protecting victims of sexual assault on campuses throughout this nation.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS