09 September, 2017
The United States Secretary of Education plans to change the way colleges and universities deal with accusations of sexual assault.
"The era of ‘rule by letter' is over," said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in comments last Thursday to the news media.
DeVos is promising to replace a set of rules from a 2011 document known as the "Dear Colleague Letter." It was given to school officials during the presidency of Barack Obama.
The letter expanded on Title IX, a U.S. law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive financial support from the federal government. It said Title IX can also be used to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment. This meant schools were required to, among other things, offer a clear way for students and employees to report claims. In addition, colleges and universities must provide special medical services for victims.
The schools also have to hold their own fair and open investigations in addition to any criminal investigations by the police. If they fail to meet these and other requirements, the Education Department has the right to block their financial support. However, the government has yet to make use of such punishment.
Secretary Devos has promised to replace those rules, which she says created a system that failed students. She spoke during a visit to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
"Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the [Obama] administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students," she said.
DeVos spoke several times about protecting the rights of both sexual assault victims and those accused of carrying out attacks. She said the discussion about the issue has wrongly been formed as a competition between men and women.
DeVos did not explain how the rules will change. But she did say her office will ask the public and universities for help in developing new ones.
Critics of the "Dear Colleague Letter" cheered her announcement. They claim the current rules do not treat the accused and victims equally, but instead weigh more heavily against the accused.
Victim activists groups, however, called the education secretary's message a step in the wrong direction.
New York lawyer Andrew Miltenberg has represented students accused of sexual assault. He said he was pleased to see the government recognize that schools had been mistreating the accused.
"Up until now, everyone's been [frightened] of saying what [DeVos] said because the fear is it would be seen as being against victims' rights," he said.
Know Your IX is an activist group for sexual-assault survivors. Its members said the speech sent the message that there is no one that will hold schools responsible for protecting students.
Sejal Singh serves as a policy coordinator for the group. She said, "I really fear that DeVos will take us back to the days when schools [often] violated survivors' rights and pushed sexual assault under the rug."
Debate over the 2011 memo has been rising in recent years. Critics say the rules ask school officials with little legal experience to act as judges. Also, they say the standards required for evidence are too low.
In U.S. criminal courts, the accusers must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect is guilty. But the 2011 letter told colleges to judge students based on whether it is "more likely than not" that they committed the offense.
During her speech, DeVos agreed with critics who say the current rules are too complex and hard to understand. They also depend on "the lowest standard of proof," she added.
"Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not [already decided]," she said.
At the same time, she made it clear that "acts of sexual misconduct are ... unacceptable" and must be dealt with directly.
"Never again will these acts only be whispered about in closed-off ... rooms or swept under the rug," she promised.
About 25 protesters gathered outside the George Mason University building where DeVos spoke. Some were women who said they were sexually assaulted at their schools.
Former Obama administration officials disputed the comments DeVos made. Catherine Lhamon led the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights during Obama's presidency. She defended the current rules and said the courts have supported them several times.
Lhamon added that her office ruled on behalf of students accused of sexual assault many times. She criticized DeVos for opening the rules to what she called "essentially a popular vote."
But others education leaders said it is too soon to know how a change in federal policy would affect schools. Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University in Massachusetts, said her school would continue to follow the Obama administration rules. American Council on Education senior vice president Terry Hartle says many schools will likely do the same. His organization represents about 1,800 college presidents.
But Hartle disagrees that DeVos's speech means she will treat sexual assault accusations less seriously.
"The Obama administration took a very important step and raised the importance of the issue," Hartle said. "But they missed the target, and we need to go back and ask whether or not we've got the policies ... in place that we should."
I'm Dorothy Gundy. And I'm Pete Musto.
Collin Binkley and Laurie Kellman reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted their report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
We want to hear from you. What rules does the government in your country have governing how universities deal with sexual assault? Do you think they are strong and fair enough? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
assault – n. the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically
era – n.a period of time that is associated with a particular quality, event, person
financial – adj. relating to money
harassment – n. the act of annoying or bothering (someone) in a constant or repeated way
on behalf of – n. something done in support of someone
under the rug – idm. something that is illegal, embarrassing, or wrong that is hidden
standard(s) – n. a level of quality, or achievement that is considered acceptable or desirable
doubt – n. a feeling of being uncertain or unsure about something
misconduct – n. wrong behavior
whisper(ed) – v. to speak very softly or quietly