Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced plans Thursday to scale back an Obama-era directive regulating how schools deal with sexual-assault allegations on campus.
“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos said in a speech at George Mason University in Virginia. She pledged to replace the “failed system” with a “workable, effective, and fair system” that does more for both sexual-assault victims and the accused.
“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” she said.
DeVos did not immediately end the guidance, which says that Title IX requires a comprehensive and robust response from schools to accusations of sexual violence. But she did say a public comment period would soon begin in order to craft new rules.
“We will seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise, and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective, and fair system,” DeVos said.
The Obama guidance has been criticized over the years by those who think it is too harsh on the accused. “On campuses throughout the country, I’ve seen firsthand how colleges and universities are wrongfully implementing their own kangaroo courts to adjudicate accusations of sexual misconduct and destroying the lives of wrongfully accused male students,” said Andrew Miltenberg, a lawyer whose clients include many young men accused of sexual assault on campus. “Title IX was meant to be a tool for fairness, not a means for colleges and universities to micromanage students’ sex lives.”
The Atlantic this week published a piece arguing that “rules intended to protect victims of sexual assault mean students have lost their right to due process.”
There is no doubt that until recently, many women’s claims of sexual assault were reflexively and widely disregarded—or that many still are in some quarters. (One need look no further than the many derogatory responses received by the women who came forward last year to accuse then-candidate Donald Trump of sexual violations.) Action to redress that problem was—and is—fully warranted. But many of the remedies that have been pushed on campus in recent years are unjust to men, infantilize women, and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the fight against sexual violence.
Those advocating for the rights of victims, however, believe DeVos’s announcement will mark a giant step backward. Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, called the announcement “a blunt attack on survivors of sexual assault.”
She added: “It will discourage schools from taking steps to comply with the law — just at the moment when they are finally working to get it right. And it sends a frightening message to all students: Your government does not have your back if your rights are violated. This misguided approach signals a green light to sweep sexual assault further under the rug. We refuse to return to the days when schools could mistreat survivors with impunity.”