Activists Appalled by DeVos' Intent to Roll Back Civil Rights on Campus

The Trump administration will overhaul Obama-era guidelines for schools investigating sexual assaults on campus, education secretary Betsy DeVos said on Thursday.

DeVos waded into the controversy that has embroiled US higher education for almost a decade and pitted survivors of sexual assault against critics who say the system is unfairly tilted against the accused.

Reeling off a long list of cases in which she said the system had failed to protect survivors and accused alike, DeVos said: “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.

“This is not about letting institutions off the hook – they still have important work to do. [But] through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach.”

The announcement was months in the making. Since taking office, DeVos has faced consistent pressure from congressional Republicans, students who say they were railroaded by false accusations, and groups of legal scholars to backpedal the Obama administration’s approach to enforcing the law, title IX, that requires schools to protect students from sexual assault.

The harshest critics of theapproach to such cases under Obama, who say it protected survivors at the expense of the rights of the accused, have called for DeVos to going even further. They wanted her to fully rescind the 2011 guidance, known as a “Dear Colleague” letter, that advised colleges to seriously investigate claims of sexual assault or risk the loss of their federal funding.

On Thursday, DeVos stopped short of withdrawing the guidance. But her agency will accept comments from the public before potentially issuing new guidance or a new rule which carries more force, outlining how colleges should respond to claims of sexual assault.

The announcement will not change the rights of students who have been assaulted or schools’ obligations to investigate their complaints under federal law.

Advocates for survivors of assault fear that the Trump administration could be signaling that colleges can soften their stance on enforcement as part of a desire to water down hard-won protections for people who have been assaulted.

In July, DeVos met representatives of men’s rights groups who argue, contrary to most evidence, that rates of rape and domestic violence are overblown.

DeVos’s top civil rights deputy, Candice Jackson, then told a reporter that 90% of campus rape investigations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk’, ‘we broke up and six months later I found myself under atTitle IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right’.” Jackson later said her remarks had been “flippant”.

Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, said: “There’s an overall problem with the message they’re sending right now. It matters that you have the head of the Office of Civil Rights repeating rape myths. My really deep worry is that they are not treating this as an issue with the sort of seriousness it deserves.”

Catherine Lhamon, who headed the Office for Civil Rights under Obama, said: “Whatever happens after today, the law will not change and the schools’ obligations will not change. But the very real risk of signaling change from the Department of Education is that schools that don’t want to comply with the law will not comply, and will believe that no one will be there to catch them … Those are the bad old days. We do not want to revert there.”

DeVos said she broadly agreed with critics of the Obama approach who said it tilted disciplinary hearings in favor of the accusers.

“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the victim only creates more victims,” she said. “Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students.”

While the Dear Colleague letter of 2011 unleashed seismic changes in the way colleges and universities handled accusations of sexual assault, it did so largely without creating new policies or requirements. The letter was mostly a summary of schools’ obligations as they already existed under the law.

What distinguished the letter was the fanfare surrounding its release and the Obama administration’s stepped-up enforcement. Following the letter, the Office of Civil Rights opened investigations into dozens of colleges while scores of others voluntarily overhauled their policies.

“What the Dear Colleague letter did was put the higher education committee on notice that Title IX exists, it applied to sexual violence, and there were established standards that colleges were going to be held to by the Office of Civil Rights,” said S Daniel Carter, a sexual assault survivors advocate who advised on the writing of the Dear Colleague letter.

“That was by far the most significant impact it had,” he said. “It went from being a serious but relatively obscure issue to being one of the top issues in higher education, and that changed everything.”

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