The US Department of Education, under the Trump Administration’s authority, announced new rules on how college campuses should handle cases of campus sexual assault. The changes, announced on Wednesday, May 6 by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, pertain to how campuses should enforce Title IX. This federal law bans sexual discrimination in educational settings and has been used as a way of cracking down on campus sexual abuse.
Under Obama Administration rules, the accused person could be held responsible if a university review found it likely that they committed the crime. Under the new Trump Administration guidelines, the accuser must present a much higher standard of proof for the accused to be found guilty.
Evolving Campus Sexual Assault Policies
Instituted in 1972, Title IX gained attention in more recent years during Barack Obama’s presidency. His administration drafted guidelines specifying that the law obligates universities to respond to incidents of sexual abuse. Among these was the adoption of the “preponderance of evidence” standard for cases of suspected sexual assault, requiring a 50.1% chance that the charges are accurate.
In contrast, the new guidelines allow schools to use a “clear and convincing” standard, meaning the probability that the crime was committed must be significantly higher than the probability that it wasn’t. The new rules will allow schools to use whichever standard they see fit for a case.
Defining Sexual Harassment
The new standards also narrow the definition of sexual harassment, reserving investigations only for “severe, pervasive and objectionably offensive” behavior. Obama-era definitions for harassment included any conduct that “interferes with or limits” a victim’s access to the school. This included “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” per CBS News.
In addition, DeVos’ new policies name dating violence and stalking as explicit examples of offenses that schools should investigate. They also exempt schools from getting involved in off-campus incidents that didn’t involve school functions or organizations.
Responses to New Rules
The new standards have been met with a mixed response from various advocacy groups. Families Advocating for Campus Equality, which advocates for the rights of the accused, has come out in support of the measures.
“Anybody who’s accused of something so vile [as sexual assault] has to have the opportunity to defend themselves,” Co-President Cynthia Garrett told NPR. “I think that in order to ruin someone’s life [by expelling them from school] there has to be a process like this. It shouldn’t be easy.”
Meanwhile, a former defendant in a campus sexual assault case, going by the name John Doe, has praised the new rules.
“People don’t realize what these hearings used to look like,” Doe said, according to NPR. “They can’t just be a horse and pony show where they go through the motions and the school comes to a predetermined outcome.”
On the other side, victim advocacy groups have been quick to denounce the changes. According to CBS News, the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, said the move “unveils a disturbing set of priorities” surrounding policy.
“If this rule goes into effect, survivors will be denied their civil rights and will get the message loud and clear that there is no point in reporting assault,” said Fatima Goss Graves, the group’s president and CEO. “We refuse to go back to the days when rape and harassment in schools were ignored and swept under the rug.”
Meanwhile, survivor advocacy group Know Your IX has also criticized the move.
“This is extremely worrisome,” said Sage Carson, the group’s manager, per NPR. She continued that the new campus sexual assault rules “make it clear to me that DeVos cares more about schools and [accused students] than she does about survivors.”
A Case of Poor Timing?
School administrators also expressed disappointment, particularly with the Department of Education’s deadline of 100 days to make the changes.
“We are not set up to do that,” Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, told NPR. “We do not have the legal authority to do that. We don’t have the social legitimacy to do that. We want to teach students. We don’t want to run courts.”
Hartle said that schools will press the Department of Education for more time to adopt the policies. “This is madness,” he said.
“This is an extraordinarily complicated piece of work that they have spent more than three years developing,” he said. “It’s a mistake to now turn to colleges and universities and say, put it in place in 100 days. It’s simply not going to work very well.”
Campus Sexual Assault Rules — Sources
CBS News – “How Betsy DeVos plans to change the rules for handling sexual misconduct on campus”
CBS News – “New campus sexual assault rules give accused students more rights, Betsy DeVos says”
Cornell Law School
US Department of Education