Editorial: Work to protect campus sexual assault victims

States need to keep up their own pressure on campuses
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Picture five young women walking across campus, chatting away as they head to their next class or their dorm room to study or to a school function.

Statistics show that one of those women will have experienced some kind of sexual misconduct due to physical force, threat of physical force or from being incapacitated during their time in college.

That could be your daughter. It could be your niece. Or your granddaughter. Your neighbor’s child.

Someone you don’t know.

And the impact of that assault will likely darken that woman for the rest of her days.

Think about that:

One in five women. One. In. Five.

The greater tragedy is that most of their assailants will get away with their crimes.

The American Association of Universities reports that only about 5 percent of campus sexual assaults are reported, in part because the women fear coming forward.

That’s a statistic that the federal government can’t ignore, and a statistic that should be keeping U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos up at night as she decides how to move forward on addressing campus sexual assault.

Under the guise that there’s a large population of sexual offenders being falsely accused and deprived of their right to due process (the statistics say otherwise), the federal government under DeVos is threatening to rescind Obama-era guidelines issued in 2011 under Title IX for college campuses that were designed to protect sexual assault victims and get justice for them.

By speaking so negatively about the standards that many colleges were compelled to adopt in 2011 because they weren’t doing enough the address assaults on their campuses, DeVos is sending the message to sexual assault victims that the government is turning its back on victims.

The outrage over the discussion comes from organizations representing sexual assault victims, civil rights advocates and government officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden, New York U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and 20 state attorneys general who signed a letter to DeVos in July urging her to keep the standards in place.

The rights of the victims, who struggle not only with the assault but with getting justice for their pain, should be the federal government’s top priority in developing or amending policy. The victims should be the focus of any improvements in how campuses address sexual assaults.

There can’t be a false equivalency between victims and their attackers.

One of the Obama standards that must be kept in place is the “preponderance of evidence standard” for sexual assault claims. This essentially states that it is more than likely that a sexual harassment or violence occurred. 

DeVos and her supporters have suggested establishing a more rigorous “clear and convincing” standard, which means officials must find that it was “highly probable or reasonably certain” that an incident occurred.

While that sounds like it should be the measure of proof, that standard is inconsistent with the standard of proof established for violations of the civil rights laws like Title IX that protect individuals from discrimination, according to the 2011 Obama guidance letter.

Despite the claims by supporters who favor rolling back the standards, the Obama rules do call for a fair hearing for the accused.

“Throughout a school’s Title IX investigation, including at any hearing, the parties must have an equal opportunity to present relevant witnesses and other evidence. … The complainant and the alleged perpetrator must be afforded similar and timely access to any information that will be used at the hearing,” the letter states.

Whether colleges are complying with those standards and following those guidelines is a matter of enforcement, not regulations.

To her credit, DeVos did not, as some expected, immediately roll back the standards last week.
Instead, she’s hosted listening sessions in an attempt to hear from parties representing victims, the accused, college administrators and others with a stake in her decision.

But many fear her focus on the standards is a strong signal that she plans to eliminate them — setting back any progress campuses have made in the last several years in addressing sexual assault cases.
So what should be done?

College administrators, victims support groups, lawmakers, victims and those who have been accused need to all provide their input so DeVos is forced to make a decision that retains protections for victims,  while fixing flaws in the initiative that result in the falsely accused being labeled sex offenders.

Campuses should continue, in the meantime, their efforts to fairly and adequately identify sexual assaults, provide recourse for victims, and provide fair and thorough hearings of the complaints.

And states need to keep up their own pressure on campuses to do more to address the problem.

New York state, for instance, in 2015 put in place an “Enough is Enough” law that requires all colleges to adopt policies for reducing sexual assault on campus and for bringing perpetrators to justice.

The law includes requirements for more cooperation between colleges and outside law enforcement, mandated sexual assault training for students and staff, a student Bill of Rights, and a uniform definition of affirmative consent. This means the partner must affirmatively agree to the participate in the sexual act, not just say no when she doesn’t want to participate.

What can’t be allowed to happen is for the federal government to remove protections for sexual assault victims to the benefit of their assailants.

There is indeed room for improvement in the Obama-era guidance. But the guidance should not be discarded and replaced with a weaker, less effective system.

Remember, one in five. 

One in five.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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