US Education Chief Cancels Rules on Sexual Assaults

25 September, 2017

American colleges are deciding whether to change how they investigate sexual assaults after a directive from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Last Friday, DeVos withdrew official guidance on how college and university officials deal with sexual assault cases. Those rules were established during the presidency of Barack Obama.

DeVos became education secretary after Republican Donald Trump replaced Obama as president. She said the Obama rules used the "lowest standard" of evidence and sometimes denied a fair hearing to students accused of sexual attacks, including rape.

Betsy DeVos speaks Friday during a Republican conference in Michigan.
Betsy DeVos speaks Friday during a Republican conference in Michigan.

The Obama administration had called on colleges to use a standard that held a preponderance, or majority, of evidence was enough to decide guilt. Obama's Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, had said the guidelines were needed because some colleges were not taking sexual assaults and dating violence seriously enough.

DeVos will let colleges choose between the preponderance standard and another measure -- "clear and convincing evidence." That second standard is harder to meet.

Legal experts say a change in evidence requirements can be important because often no one saw the sexual assault other than the victim and person accused of the attack.

Stephen Schulhofer is an expert on criminal justice issues and a professor at New York University's School of Law.

Schulhofer said that if both the victim and accused make statements, "a preponderance standard requires only a determination which version is more likely to be true."

"In contrast," he said, "a clear and convincing standard is much harder to meet, requires real confidence that one version is true, the other not true."

Stephanie Spangler directs the Office of Health Affairs and Academic Integrity at Yale University in Connecticut.

She said, "We remain committed to policies that effectively address sexual misconduct and processes that are fair to all."

Spangler said she believes that Yale's current policies meet new requirements announced by DeVos and Connecticut state laws.

Janet Napolitano is president of the University of California system. She formerly served as Homeland Security Secretary in the Obama administration.

Napolitano said she is "deeply worried" the new rules "will in effect weaken sexual violence protections."

DeVos said that the Education Department is not backing away from strong actions to stop sexual assault.

"Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on," DeVos said.

In her announcement last week, she also removed an Obama administration rule that called on colleges to decide sexual assault cases within 60 days.

Some critics had said that 60 days was not enough time for colleges to collect evidence. But others said a 60-day time period was needed so assault victims are not put under more pressure by the accused and their friends to drop charges.

Elizabeth Boyle works with Know Your IX, a group that helps survivors of sexual assault. She fears the new guidelines will make even more victims of sexual assault unwilling to report the crimes.

As it is, she said, many victims of sexual assault are afraid to report being attacked for fear that their charges will not be taken seriously.

"These changes will only make things worse," she added.

Boyle is a student at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said that the Obama administration guidelines made it difficult for people falsely accused of sexual assault to get a fair hearing.

"It made it impossible for campuses to serve the needs of victims while also respecting the rights of the accused," said Robert Shibley, the group's director.

Now, he said, the U.S. finally has the chance "to get it right."

DeVos said the Education Department will spend the next few months developing new rules on sexual assault through a public process.

She said the department will not allow sexual assault to be "swept under the rug." By swept under the rug, she meant hiding something to avoid looking bad.

In a series of questions and answers sent to college officials, the Education Department said it is looking for fair treatment of both sexual assault victims and people accused of such attacks.

"Any process made available to one party...should be made equally available to the other party," the department said in one answer. It noted that both the victim of sexual assault and the person accused should be able to bring the advisor of their choice to hearings.

I'm Bruce Alpert.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

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

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Words in This Story

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

standard - n. a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable

datingadj. of or related to meeting someone for a social outing

convincing - adj. causing someone to believe that something is true or certain

confidence - n. a belief that a statement is true

address - v. to deal with a problem

confront - v. to deal with a problem in a direct and forceful way