US Education Secretary Studying Sexual Assault Policies

25 July, 2017

American Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is examining federal guidance on how schools should deal with sexual assault.

The guidance was written during the presidency of Barack Obama. It advises school officials on a U.S. law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. The law requires schools to take action to deal with issues like hostile educational environments and illegal sexual contact.

On July 13, DeVos spoke at a conference in Washington, D.C.

DeVos said she is considering how to balance the interests of sexual assault victims against those accused unfairly of sexual assault.

Demonstrators warn about weakening federal rules

The education secretary met at the conference with sexual assault victims and people who said they were falsely accused of sexually attacking others.

At the same time, Maya Weinstein, 23, and others demonstrated outside the headquarters of the Department of Education. Weinstein was raped by another student during her first year at George Washington University.

"It is interesting to me how sexual assault is viewed as a different issue than any other crime," Weinstein told VOA. "The false reporting statistics are comparable to that of someone saying they were robbed and we don't question those who come forward to say they were robbed."

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that between two percent and eight percent of sexual assault charges are proven false. It says those rates are comparable to other crimes.

DeVos told the conference that existing rules might not protect the rights of people falsely accused. She spoke about meeting with students who say they were falsely accused.

Devos said, "It was clear that their stories have not often been told, and that there are lives that have been ruined and lives that are lost in the process."

DeVos also said that sexual assault is a serious problem.

"We can't go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug," she said.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meets with reporters last week in Washington.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos meets with reporters last week in Washington.

Last year, the company International Student Insurance made a video about sexual assault for international students at American colleges. It said countries have different ideas about what is acceptable and what is not.

In the United States, a sexual relationship requires consent, the video says. It describes consent as when both people agree to sexual activity "without feeling pressured or intimidated and without being under the influence of drugs or alcohol."

Sexual assault victim says not enough done for victims

Alyssa Peterson was a victim of sexual assault while attending Georgetown University in Washington. Like many victims, she decided not to bring charges against her attacker because she was not sure the process would be fair.

In 2015, the Association of American Universities said that half of college students did not report incidents of sexual assault because they did not think it was "serious enough." Others said they were embarrassed or thought "nothing would be done."

Even with the stronger federal guidance, punishment for sexual assault remains weak, Peterson said. She said few students are removed from college for sexually assaulting fellow students.

Peterson is now a Yale University law school student. She works with a group called Know Your Title IX, which supports victims of sexual assault.

Before the July 13 conference, the Education Department's acting assistant secretary for civil rights apologized for comments she made about sexual assault.

The official, Candice Jackson, had spoken to the New York Times newspaper. She said that 90 percent of sexual assault cases involve two drunken students and a student deciding "our last sleeping together was not quite right."

In her apology Jackson said, "What I said was flippant, and I am sorry." Jackson also said that she was a rape victim.

University settles case brought by student accused of rape

Columbia University in New York recently settled a case dealing with allegations of sexual assault. The case was brought by a former international student.

The former student, Paul Nungesser of Germany, had accused Columbia officials of failing to protect him.

The German man had been accused of raping another student, but the university cleared Nungesser of wrongdoing.

Nungesser's lawyers said the university permitted his accuser to carry a mattress around on Columbia's grounds as part of a school-approved art project.

The accuser said the mattress represented the school's failure to punish Nungesser for raping her. She even carried it to her graduation ceremonies in 2015.

The university said Nungesser's time at Columbia had "become very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience." It added that Nungesser is now attending a film school in Germany.

The woman who accused Nungesser of rape had criticized Columbia for being "more concerned about their public image than keeping people safe."

I'm Caty Weaver. And I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section and share your views on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

assault - n. the crime of trying or threatening to hurt someone physically

tolln. the price for a service; a tax paid for some right

view - v. an opinion or way of thinking about something

statistics - n. number that represents a piece of information such as information about how often something is done, how common something is

allegation - n. charges against someone

swept under the rug - expression to hide something unpleasant or embarrassing

intimidate - v. to make someone afraid

embarrass - v. to make someone feel confused and foolish in front of other people

flippant - adj. lacking proper respect or seriousness

mattress - n. a cloth case that is filled with material and used as a bed