US Department of Education Changes College Sexual Assault Guidelines

The U.S. Department of Education has withdrawn 2011 guidance on how colleges should handle accusations of sexual assault, saying the policy “failed to ensure fundamental fairness.” A set of interim guidelines has been disclosed.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a release Friday that the interim guidelines “will treat all students fairly.”

“Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head on,” she said. “There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”

Supporters of the withdrawn guidelines say they are effective in explaining to colleges and universities their role in preventing and handling security threats, harassment and violence on campus. 

Critics say the guidance was biased against the accused.

Friday’s release said the earlier guidelines ignored notice and comment requirements and created a system that lacked basic elements of due process.

DeVos pledged in the release to work with schools and community leaders to better address sexual misconduct prevention through education and early intervention.

DeVos’ push to revisit the rules opens a debate about how schools should investigate cases of sexual assault, a process that for years has been linked to whether universities are following federal guidelines prohibiting discrimination based on gender. DeVos has said in the past that schools need to change to better balance the rights of victims and those who are accused of sexual assault.

Schools are required to offer a clear way for students and employees to file complaints and hold fair, open campus investigations and criminal investigations by local police. They must also provide special medical services for victims.

If they fail to meet those and other requirements, the Education Department has the right to block their federal funding. However, the federal government has not used that leverage against any school.

Protests on campus

When DeVos addressed the issue September 7 at George Mason University’s campus in Arlington, Virginia, about 25 protesters gathered outside the venue. Some were women who said they had been assaulted on their campuses.

Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University near Boston, said her school would continue to follow the previous rules put in place by the Obama administration. Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an organization of about 1,800 college presidents, said many schools would most likely do the same.

Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, released a statement saying that because of Title IX rules under the previous administration, it and other schools had increased its response and treatment of sexual assault cases.

“We are committed to ensuring that our policies and processes comply with federal requirements and guidance, and our dedication to this commitment remains strong,” the Brown University press release said. “We will … [maintain] a campus culture in which all community members are equally valued, respected and safe.”

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