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US Education Chief Promises to Change Rules on Sexual Assault

2017-09-10

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[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.”
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  • It was given to school officials during the presidency of Barack Obama.
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  • 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.
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  • This meant schools were required to, among other things, offer a clear way for students and employees to report claims.
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  • In addition, colleges and universities must provide special medical services for victims.
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  • The schools also have to hold their own fair and open investigations in addition to any criminal investigations by the police.
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  • If they fail to meet these and other requirements, the Education Department has the right to block their financial support.
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  • However, the government has yet to make use of such punishment.
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  • Secretary Devos has promised to replace those rules, which she says created a system that failed students.
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  • She spoke during a visit to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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  • “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.
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  • DeVos spoke several times about protecting the rights of both sexual assault victims and those accused of carrying out attacks.
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  • She said the discussion about the issue has wrongly been formed as a competition between men and women.
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  • DeVos did not explain how the rules will change.
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  • But she did say her office will ask the public and universities for help in developing new ones.
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  • Critics of the “Dear Colleague Letter” cheered her announcement.
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  • They claim the current rules do not treat the accused and victims equally, but instead weigh more heavily against the accused.
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  • Victim activists groups, however, called the education secretary’s message a step in the wrong direction.
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  • New York lawyer Andrew Miltenberg has represented students accused of sexual assault.
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  • He said he was pleased to see the government recognize that schools had been mistreating the accused.
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  • “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.
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  • 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.
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  • Sejal Singh serves as a policy coordinator for the group.
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  • 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.”
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  • Debate over the 2011 memo has been rising in recent years.
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  • Critics say the rules ask school officials with little legal experience to act as judges.
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  • Also, they say the standards required for evidence are too low.
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  • In U.S. criminal courts, the accusers must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a suspect is guilty.
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  • But the 2011 letter told colleges to judge students based on whether it is “more likely than not” that they committed the offense.
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  • During her speech, DeVos agreed with critics who say the current rules are too complex and hard to understand.
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  • They also depend on “the lowest standard of proof,” she added.
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  • “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.
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  • 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.
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  • About 25 protesters gathered outside the George Mason University building where DeVos spoke.
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  • Some were women who said they were sexually assaulted at their schools.
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  • Former Obama administration officials disputed the comments DeVos made.
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  • Catherine Lhamon led the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights during Obama’s presidency.
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  • She defended the current rules and said the courts have supported them several times.
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  • 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.
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  • Gloria Larson, the president of Bentley University in Massachusetts,
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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