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College sexual assault policy scrapped by US Education Department

DeVos makes remarks during a major policy address on Title IX enforcement, which in college covers sexual harassment, rape and assault, at George Mason University, in Arlington, Virginia, US, Sept 7, 2017. Source: Reuters/Mike Theiler

US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Thursday she will rescind an Obama-era schools directive on sexual assault and develop a replacement that she said would do a better job of balancing the rights of victims and the accused.

“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos said during a half-hour speech at George Mason University, as reported by Politico.

“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.”

Controversy over campus sexual assault and colleges’ lack of action in pursuing accusations have plagued US higher education for almost a decade. In 2011, the Department of Education, under President Barack Obama, reinterpreted a portion of the US Education Amendments of 1972 known as Title IX, giving the federal government authority to dictate the specific procedures that colleges must use to adjudicate student-on-student sexual assault allegations.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter, as it is commonly known, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) told all of the more than 7,000 colleges that receive federal money to use the lowest possible standard of proof in sexual assault cases. It also allowed accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, told schools to accelerate their adjudications and discouraged cross-examination of accusers.

The measures prompted strong criticism from groups who felt the approach protected survivors at the expense of the rights of the accused. Several congressional Republicans joined the chorus of those who saw the law as an overreach that had the potential to railroad innocent students with false accusations.

DeVos’ announcement has long been expected as, just months after being confirmed in office, she met with several groups impacted by Title IX.

According to Bustle, DeVos met with survivors of sexual assault, school representatives and experts, and, most controversially, men’s rights groups that work on behalf of male students accused of sexual assault.

US Vice-President Mike Pence (right) swears in DeVos, joined by her husband Dick (centre), at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House in Washington, US, on Feb 7, 2017. Source: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The meetings prompted protests from survivors of sexual assault, as well as activists and politicians, who gathered in front of the Department of Education to share their stories and to implore DeVos to protect students’ civil liberties.

Thursday’s announcement does not affect the rights of students, but many have expressed fear that the upcoming change in guidelines could signal a move by the Trump administration to soften the stance on enforcement of Title IX, leading to a reduction in protections for victims.

“Secretary DeVos’ decision to revisit existing campus sexual assault protections is an insult to survivors of sexual assault,” tweeted Democratic Senator Bob Casey. “…Today, Sec DeVos made the work of holding violent perpetrators accountable more difficult.”

In July, DeVos’s top civil rights deputy, Candice Jackson met with criticism after she told a reporter that 90 percent of campus rape investigations “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 our last sleeping together was not quite right’.”

Statistics released by the Department of Justice show that only between two and 10 percent of sexual assault accusations turn out to be false.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also released a study in 2016 that found one in five female undergraduates have experienced some kind of sexual assault while in college, with sexual assault defined as rape and sexual battery.

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