Tuesday, November 24, 2020

DeVos shakes up campus sexual assault protections

Just one week after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stopped by two Kansas City schools, the controversial leader of the Department of Education rescinded campus sexual assault protections put in place under the Obama administration.

According to DeVos, scrapping key parts of the federal government’s guidelines for investigating sexual assault on campus balances the need to address misconduct while giving more rights to the accused, who she says Obama era guidelines unfairly restricted.

The previous guidelines required schools to use the lowest standard of evidence when investigating and deciding cases of sexual misconduct.

In a speech at George Mason University earlier this month, DeVos said these guidelines resulted in wrongful convictions.

“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” said DeVos. “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.”

These comments launched a national debate regarding investigations of sexual assault on college campuses and foreshadowed the sweeping changes announced last Friday.

In an interview with U-News anticipating DeVos’s visit to Kansas City, UMKC Title IX coordinator Mikah Thompson said she hopes students at UMKC “don’t feel less safe” because of the rhetoric coming from the nation’s top education administrator.

During her interview, Thompson also cited the proposed changes to the standard of proof as a cause of concern for her office. According to Thompson, these changes could make it harder for her office to make determinations on cases.

While the Department of Education works to lay out new guidelines for investigating sexual assault on campus, interim guidelines give individual schools the power to determine whether the standard of proof will raise to that of “clear and convincing” or remain at the “preponderance of evidence” implemented by Obama era regulations.

DeVos’s decision shook up more than questions of evidence, however.

In addition to giving schools the opportunity to raise standards of proof, DeVos threw out a guideline requiring schools investigate claims of sexual assault within a 60-day timeframe. Instead, schools are now required to ensure responses are “reasonably prompt.”

DeVos’s changes do not stop there. The secretary also stripped federal guidelines of a rule barring the use of mediation in handling cases of sexual assault.

While both parties must agree to mediation under these interim guidelines, the Obama era guidelines banned the practice on the grounds that victims might feel forced to participate. Using mediation, the now reversed regulations argued, allows schools to handle sexual assault internally and protects schools from bad publicity.

DeVos’s controversial decisions and the national debate she’s incited thrust Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri into the limelight. McCaskill, a long-time advocate for sexual assault victims and former sex crimes prosecutor, is a leading figure in the national push to make college campuses safer.

From left: Sens. Gillibrand and McCaskill joined forces to fight against DeVos’s sweeping changes to campus sexual assault regulations. (Source: www.mccaskill.senate.gov).
From left: Sens. Gillibrand and McCaskill joined forces to fight against DeVos’s sweeping changes to campus
sexual assault regulations. (Source: www.mccaskill.senate.gov).

McCaskill led last year’s bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which aimed to promote victim empowerment, institutional transparency, and accountability for perpetrators of sexual misconduct.

At the time, Sen. McCaskill characterized the bill and the values it stood for as “common sense” standards that everyone shares, regardless of political orientation.

After the announcement last Friday that the Department of Education is rescinding guidelines for handling sexual assault cases on college campuses, Sen. McCaskill issued a statement condemning DeVos.

“Secretary DeVos has taken the progress we’ve made protecting survivors and making our campuses safer, and thrown that progress into chaos,” said McCaskill. “As students head back to school this fall, their Department of Education has just told them if they’re assaulted, it’ll now be harder to fight for justice and ensure their safety on campus.”

Sen. McCaskill is teaming up with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to push back against DeVos’s agenda.

In addition to speaking out against the decision to rescind campus sexual assault guidelines, Sens. McCaskill and Gilibrand called on DeVos to fire the Department of Education’s Chief Civil Rights Officer, Candice Jackson.

The joint call to dismiss Jackson came after the Chief Civil Rights Officer said, 90 percent of sexual assault accusations on college campuses can be characterized as, “‘We were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

While students and administrators adjust to new regulations, the fight in Washington over sexual assault protections and investigation guidelines continues to heat up.

For more information on this ongoing story, check out unews.com. Stay tuned for next week’s issue, when U-News takes a closer look at how these changes impact students and staff at UMKC.

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