Betsy DeVos Signals Rollback Of Obama Policies On Campus Sexual Assault

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 9:06 am

The Trump administration is expected to address Obama-era policies cracking down on campus sexual assault. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signaled she wants to make significant changes to how schools handle allegations, to ensure the process is fair to accused students.

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We may soon see significant changes in the way college sexual assault is handled. Today, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she wants public comment on ways to revise the rules set by the Obama administration. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, DeVos emphasized the need to balance the rights of alleged victims with those of the accused.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: DeVos started by calling sexual assault atrocious and unacceptable.

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BETSY DEVOS: We know this much to be true - one rape is one too many.

SMITH: But DeVos went on to add to that her concerns for accused students.

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DEVOS: One person denied due process is one too many.

SMITH: DeVos pointed to Obama Administration directives detailing exactly how schools have to investigate and adjudicate sexual assault cases. Those may well have been based on good intentions, she says, but they've now run amok to the point where college-run kangaroo courts have resulted in a shameful unraveling of justice, as she put it.

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DEVOS: Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach. 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.

JOSEPH ROBERTS: It - you know, it feels good now to have someone in Washington that cares about preserving due process rights for students.

SMITH: Joseph Roberts is one accused student DeVos referred to in her speech. He was three weeks away from becoming the first in his family to graduate from college when he was suspended for sexual misconduct. But Roberts says he couldn't find out what the accusation was and never got a chance to defend himself.

ROBERTS: Without the right to due process, I had nothing. I lost everything - my graduation, my reputation, all of which.

SMITH: It's too late for him, Roberts says, but he's relieved that the issue of fairness is getting new focus. DeVos says she will use public input to rethink rules on everything from whether students can cross-examine their accuser and witnesses to whether more evidence should be required to prove allegations, and whether the definitions of sexual assault and sexual harassment are too broad in the first place. DeVos also raised questions about whether schools are in over their heads and should outsource sexual misconduct cases to regional consortiums that would be off campus and made up of trained experts. It's all left victims' advocates alarmed.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stop Betsy DeVos. Stop Betsy DeVos.

SMITH: Several dozen protested outside DeVos' speech. Many, like Sofie Karasek with End Rape on Campus, say they worry campuses will slide back to the, quote, "bad old days" when assaults were not taken seriously.

SOFIE KARASEK: Even just a couple of years ago, we were at a point where perpetrators were just being given slaps on the wrist. They were given $20 fines and essay assignments. Do we want to go back to that kind of situation? No.

SMITH: The concern is shared by former Vice President Joe Biden, who called the move devastating. Catherine Lhamon, the Obama administration's assistant secretary for Civil Rights, says current policies already protect all students and don't need revision. What's needed, she says, is continued enforcement so all schools follow those rules.

CATHERINE LHAMON: We see wide deviation where schools don't know exactly what it is that they should be doing. The good news is when our schools satisfy the law, they are protecting all students. When they don't satisfy the law, they're violating civil rights and they should be called to account.

SMITH: Public comment could take many months. Many experts are hoping for some tweaks in current rules. As one put it, doing more to ensure fairness is not necessarily incompatible with taking sexual misconduct seriously. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.