18 February, 2018
Three activist groups have sued the government over new guidelines on a U.S. law that protects against sexual violence at colleges and universities.
The groups Democracy Forward, the National Women's Law Center, and the National Center for Youth Law brought the legal action.
They say new guidelines for the federal law, called Title IX, weaken support for students who say they have been sexually assaulted at American colleges. Title IX is a law that bars discrimination at U.S. colleges and universities.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the changes last September.
The legal action comes one day after the sentencing of Larry Nassar, a former doctor and employee of Michigan State University. A judge sentenced Nassar to life in prison for the sexual assault of many female athletes.
Skye Perryman is a lawyer with Democracy Forward. She told VOA that the changes made in September will have a bad effect on those who might experience sexual violence.
"Individuals who've experienced sexual misconduct, sexual violence, and sexual assault on campuses have been chilled in their ability to bring claims because they do not believe that the system will protect them," she said.
The organizations have said however that the Title IX law has not changed.
Catalina Velasquez is with the group End Rape on Campus. She told VOA, "The only thing that has changed is the way the administration will interpret Title IX protections through the Department of Education."
She added that the Department of Education guidelines are still worrying and need to be discussed urgently.
To change the law would require a new legislation to be written, proposed, and approved by the U.S. Congress.
The accused deserve a fair trial
Colleges and universities that receive federal money are required to offer a clear way for students and employees to make complaints about sexual assault. The Title IX rule also requires them to hold fair, open school investigations. In addition, they must provide special medical services for victims.
Last September, the Education Department removed 2011 guidance on what colleges should do when they receive accusations of sexual assault. Education officials said the policy failed to provide fairness to both the accuser and the accused.
After releasing the new guidelines, Devos said that schools must continue to deal with these crimes. She added that, "The process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes." She said that those accused of assault at schools should receive fair treatment.
Parts of the 2011 guidance required schools to permit both the accuser and accused in harassment and assault cases to appeal findings. It also said universities should complete assault investigations within 60 days.
New rules for Title IX
Both of these, and other rules have been removed since September. The guidelines permit informal mediation between the accuser and the accused instead of a formal process, if both parties agree.
Many female college students said they did not know about the new rules. They said they did not trust their university's system to deal with sexual assault claims.
The Association of American Universities released a study on sexual assault in 2015. It said that only 25.8 percent of students reported that they were "very or extremely" knowledgeable of where to report a sexual assault at their school.
"I was one of those students," said Emily Franklin. She is a former student who said she was raped during her time at St. Scholastica College.
She said the first thing she did after was wash herself and clean her room, things that victims are not supposed to do. "I had honestly not heard of rape kits, I didn't know the process...I never received any of that training at my school," she said.
Franklin graduated in May 2016. She has brought a complaint against her school for a Title IX violation with the help of SurvJustice. They are an organization that provides legal support on the issue of sexual violence.
The Education Department reports information on cases related to Title IX. The investigation into Michigan State University is one of hundreds of cases for Title IX violations related to sexual assault at U.S. universities and colleges.
I'm Phil Dierking.
Esha Sarai Originally wrote this story for VOAnews.com. Phil Dierking adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
How do you think universities should handle sexual assault cases? We want to hear from you. 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
chill - v. to cause (someone) to feel afraid
complaint - n. a statement that you are unhappy or not satisfied with something
harassment - n. to make repeated attacks against
interpret - v. to understand (something) in a specified way
impartial - adj. treating all people and groups equally
kit - n. a set of tools or supplies that a person uses for a particular purpose or activity
misconduct - n. behavior or activity that is illegal or morally wrong
outcome - n. something that happens as a result of an activity or process
sue - v. to use a legal process by which you try to get a court of law to force a person, company, or organization that has treated you unfairly or hurt you in some way to give you something or to do something