Betsy DeVos announces new federal guidance on campus sexual assault

Activists and survivors of sexual assault protested as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued a rollback of Obama-era guidelines regarding investigation of sexual assault on school campuses (Twitter)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced on Thursday that she will be replacing the Obama administration’s “failed” system of campus sexual assault enforcement with one that would better emphasize the rights of the accused.

“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” said Devos. “These are non-negotiable principles.”

Responding to the concerns of victims and advocates who said that universities preferred to silence victims of sexual assault instead of launching investigations because of the risk of generating bad publicity, the Obama administration had issued guidelines to require schools to assume the lowest possible burden of proof in sexual assault cases. Concerns that universities had begun overreaching by issuing life-altering interim measures against those accused of assault had been raised by a number of legal scholars, even as activists noted that such measures were effective means of protecting victims from their alleged attackers while investigations were underway. An analysis released this week by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil-liberties group, found that nearly 75 percent of schools don’t guarantee students that they will be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The Trump administration’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward the plight of victims has done little to reassure those who fear that Devos cares little about protecting victims of sexual assault. Candice Jackson, a leading civil rights lawyer for the Education Department who had included her disdain for Hillary Clinton as a “top qualification” on her application to the Trump administration, shocked many when she claimed that “90 percent” of sexual assault claims were fraudulent. And on Thursday, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, one of the leading advocates for campus sexual assault victims, led a demonstration outside the Department of Education as Devos made her announcement. Gillibrand appeared with survivors of sexual assault and, as she noted in a post on Twitter, called on Devos to protect Title IX guidance.

In a statement, Gillibrand said, “With so many sexual assaults still happening on college campuses all over the country, we should be doing everything we can to make our Title IX enforcement policies stronger — not weakening or jeopardizing them,” The Daily Beast reported. “I don’t want to see an innocent person punished any more than I want to see a guilty person let off the hook, but Secretary DeVos has shown that she does not take the rights of survivors seriously.”

Concerns have been compounding after facts on sexual assault were quietly removed from the White House website, and Donald Trump’s own trouble history with sexual assault has led many to question whether he takes the issue seriously. Devos herself only met with sexual assault victims groups once before deciding to scrap the Obama administration’s guidelines, and no survivors of sexual assault were even invited to Thursday’s announcement. Instead, they could be heard protesting outside.

In an article for the The Atlantic, Emily Yoffe profiles a case of alleged sexual assault that took place a few years ago on the campus of the University of Massachusetts. Yoffe’s piece explores a particularly extreme case in which a suspect had been cleared by local police of any wrongdoing but still ended up being forced to leave the school under a cloud of suspicion.

Read the full story at The Washington Post and The Atlantic.


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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is independent of and separate from any views of The New York Times.