[00:00.00]The United States Secretary of Education plans to change the way colleges and universities deal with accusations of sexual assault.
[00:12.84]“The era of ‘rule by letter’ is over,” said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in comments last Thursday to the news media.
[00:24.61]DeVos is promising to replace a set of rules from a 2011 document known as the “Dear Colleague Letter.”
[00:35.69]It was given to school officials during the presidency of Barack Obama.
[00:41.75]The letter expanded on Title IX, a U.S. law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive financial support from the federal government.
[00:55.16]It said Title IX can also be used to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment.
[01:03.33]This meant schools were required to, among other things, offer a clear way for students and employees to report claims.
[01:14.64]In addition, colleges and universities must provide special medical services for victims.
[01:23.63]The schools also have to hold their own fair and open investigations in addition to any criminal investigations by the police.
[01:35.41]If they fail to meet these and other requirements, the Education Department has the right to block their financial support.
[01:46.66]However, the government has yet to make use of such punishment.
[01:52.78]Secretary Devos has promised to replace those rules, which she says created a system that failed students.
[02:03.46]She spoke during a visit to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
[02:10.53]“Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the [Obama] administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students,” she said.
[02:25.59]DeVos spoke several times about protecting the rights of both sexual assault victims and those accused of carrying out attacks.
[02:38.56]She said the discussion about the issue has wrongly been formed as a competition between men and women.
[02:47.57]DeVos did not explain how the rules will change.
[02:52.35]But she did say her office will ask the public and universities for help in developing new ones.
[03:01.20]Critics of the “Dear Colleague Letter” cheered her announcement.
[03:06.60]They claim the current rules do not treat the accused and victims equally, but instead weigh more heavily against the accused.
[03:17.71]Victim activists groups, however, called the education secretary’s message a step in the wrong direction.
[03:26.56]New York lawyer Andrew Miltenberg has represented students accused of sexual assault.
[03:34.80]He said he was pleased to see the government recognize that schools had been mistreating the accused.
[03:43.70]“Up until now, everyone’s been [frightened] of saying what [DeVos] said because the fear is it would be seen as being against victims’ rights,” he said.
[03:57.26]Know Your IX is an activist group for sexual-assault survivors.
[04:04.14]Its members said the speech sent the message that there is no one that will hold schools responsible for protecting students.
[04:14.57]Sejal Singh serves as a policy coordinator for the group.
[04:20.88]She said, “I really fear that DeVos will take us back to the days when schools [often] violated survivors’ rights and pushed sexual assault under the rug.”
[04:34.48]Debate over the 2011 memo has been rising in recent years.
[04:40.91]Critics say the rules ask school officials with little legal experience to act as judges.
[04:49.98]Also, they say the standards required for evidence are too low.
[04:56.06]In U.S. criminal courts, the accusers must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect is guilty.
[05:05.14]But the 2011 letter told colleges to judge students based on whether it is “more likely than not” that they committed the offense.
[05:16.87]During her speech, DeVos agreed with critics who say the current rules are too complex and hard to understand.
[05:26.95]They also depend on “the lowest standard of proof,” she added.
[05:32.61]“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not [already decided],” she said.
[05:46.48]At the same time, she made it clear that “acts of sexual misconduct are … unacceptable” and must be dealt with directly.
[05:57.07]“Never again will these acts only be whispered about in closed-off … rooms or swept under the rug,” she promised.
[06:06.76]About 25 protesters gathered outside the George Mason University building where DeVos spoke.
[06:14.90]Some were women who said they were sexually assaulted at their schools.
[06:21.08]Former Obama administration officials disputed the comments DeVos made.
[06:27.96]Catherine Lhamon led the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights during Obama’s presidency.
[06:36.65]She defended the current rules and said the courts have supported them several times.
[06:44.84]Lhamon added that her office ruled on behalf of students accused of sexual assault many times.
[06:53.46]She criticized DeVos for opening the rules to what she called “essentially a popular vote.”
[07:01.25]But others education leaders said it is too soon to know how a change in federal policy would affect schools.
[07:11.32]Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University in Massachusetts,
[07:17.93]said her school would continue to follow the Obama administration rules.
[07:24.23]American Council on Education senior vice president Terry Hartle says many schools will likely do the same.
[07:34.72]His organization represents about 1,800 college presidents.
[07:42.37]But Hartle disagrees that DeVos’s speech means she will treat sexual assault accusations less seriously.
[07:54.01]“The Obama administration took a very important step and raised the importance of the issue,” Hartle said.
[08:03.16]“But they missed the target, and we need to go back and ask whether or not we’ve got the policies … in place that we should.”
[08:13.43]I’m Dorothy Gundy. And I’m Pete Musto.