Editorials

No to assault on campus safety

University of Kentucky students including Maria Obregon, 19, protested last November against rape culture and the administration’s handling of a sexual harassment case against a professor.
University of Kentucky students including Maria Obregon, 19, protested last November against rape culture and the administration’s handling of a sexual harassment case against a professor. Herald-Leader file photo

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reexamining Obama-era changes to Title IX policy on handling of accusations of campus sexual assault.

Twenty Democratic state attorneys general, including Kentucky’s Andy Beshear, responded with a cautionary letter. They and many others are right to be worried about what DeVos and her department will do next.

A public outcry greeted a remark by the Department of Education’s top civil rights official. Candice Jackson said: “The accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

Jackson later apologized for the remark. But the message was already sent to those college administrators who might prefer the old days when they could comfortably ignore or cover up accusations of sexual abuse and even engage in a little lighthearted victim blaming.

The attorneys general in their letter questioned “whether Ms. Jackson can be entrusted to oversee a fair, thorough process in evaluating the Department’s policies in this area.” Good question.

After the Jackson remark, DeVos held three separate meetings as part of her reexamination process. While two of the meetings included victims’ advocacy groups and campus representatives, the third was with three groups that tout themselves as defenders of men’s rights and the rights of those accused of sexual assault.

The problem is not that DeVos wants to take another look at Obama-era policies or that she wants to protect due process rights. The problem is the message she may be sending to campuses.

There are valid concerns about due process for the accused in campus sexual assault situations, especially since what’s known as the Office of Civil Rights’ “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 instructed schools that receive federal funding to use the lowest standard of proof, allow appeal of not-guilty findings and discourage cross-examination of the accusers.

The DOE hasn’t yet recommended any specific changes in Obama-era policy. But DeVos and Jackson signaled that they don’t take victims seriously and aren’t focused on decreasing sexual assaults on campus. At least that’s what 114 sexual assault survivors heard. In a Teen Vogue op-ed, they questioned who DeVos was really trying to serve.

What DeVos and her department must avoid are changes that could lead to fewer prevention policies on campuses or encourage colleges to cover up rather than investigate sexual assaults. The delay of an investigation into sexual assaults within the Baylor University football team serves as a warning. In 2016, it was revealed that Baylor officials had failed to investigate sexual assaults dating back several years.

The AGs urged DeVos not to rush into rolling back protections. Any hurried changes that don’t adequately protect victims will send yet another message: That the federal government is no longer holding colleges accountable for protecting their students.

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