Betsy DeVos to Unveil New Campus Sexual Assault Rules That Would Bolster the Rights of Accused Students, Reduce Responsibility of Universities

Michigan State University students demonstrate in support of sexual assault survivors in East Lansing, Mich., in January.
Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com, via Associated Press

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is preparing new policies on campus sexual misconduct that would bolster the rights of students accused of assault, harassment or rape, reduce liability for institutions of higher education and encourage schools to provide more support for victims.

The proposed rules, obtained by The New York Times, narrow the definition of sexual harassment, holding schools accountable only for formal complaints filed through proper authorities and for conduct said to have occurred on their campuses. They would also establish a higher legal standard to determine whether schools improperly addressed complaints.

The new rules would come at a particularly sensitive time, as major institutions such as Ohio State University, the University of Southern California and Michigan State University deal with explosive charges that members of their faculty and staff have perpetrated serious sexual misconduct. But for several years, higher education administrators have maintained that sexual misconduct rules pressed by the Obama administration unnecessarily burdened them with bureaucratic mandates that had little to do with assault or harassment, and men’s rights groups have said the accused have had little recourse.

Unlike the Obama administration’s guidance documents, the Trump administration’s new rules will have the force of law and can go into force without an act of Congress, after a public comment period.

Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, said on Wednesday that the department was “in the midst of a deliberative process.” She added that any information obtained by The Times “is premature and speculative, and therefore, we have no comment.”

Last fall, Ms. DeVos rescinded a 2011 letter prepared by the Obama administration that outlined the responsibilities of schools and colleges that receive federal funding to address episodes of sexual misconduct. Victims rights groups praised the Obama-era guidelines for aggressively holding schools accountable for complaints of sexual harassment, assault and rape that they said had often been played down or ignored. But critics contended that too often they trampled due-process rights for accused students.

In announcing the rescission of the letter, Ms. DeVos assailed the guidelines as federal overreach that coerced schools into setting up quasi-judicial systems fraught with inconsistencies.

“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” Ms. DeVos said in September 2017. “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.”

Ms. DeVos has also criticized the Obama administration for imposing rules without following the legal processes, which would allow for a public comment period.

The department’s proposal would preserve much of the law that protects against sex discrimination, called Title IX, which for the past two decades has extended beyond gender-specific discrimination to include sexual misconduct as a form of denying students access to an education. But for what appears to be the first time, the federal government would go beyond guidance and recommendations to codify how it defines sexual harassment in the nation’s schools and the steps institutions are legally required to take to address it.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Erica L. Green