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College Sexual Assault Rules Changed to Give More Rights to Accused

The Trump administration released new rules Wednesday for how universities should address allegations of sexual assault or misconduct, sparking backlash from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others who say the changes weaken protections for survivors.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration released new rules Wednesday for how universities should address allegations of sexual assault or misconduct, sparking backlash from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others who say the changes weaken protections for survivors.  

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the new regulations that narrow the definition of sexual harassment and guide how schools must handle investigations into sexual harassment allegations. 

"Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault," DeVos said in a statement Wednesday. "This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process. We can and must continue to fight sexual misconduct in our nation's schools, and this rule makes certain that fight continues."

Among other things, the new rules state that all parties in a complaint must be provided with the option of a live hearing to resolve allegations, given equal access to evidence and allowed to bring a lawyer to proceedings.

They also allow for a cross-examination of the accuser, which would be conducted without the accused party present in order to prevent further trauma for a survivor. 

Since taking office in 2017, DeVos has fought to overhaul Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities.

In September 2017, she rescinded two Obama-era sexual assault policies because they “lacked basic elements of due process and failed to ensure fundamental fairness.” DeVos said at the time that the prior guidelines failed to give male students accused of sexual assault the proper presumption of innocence, which violated their due process rights.

But civil rights groups nationwide have condemned DeVos’ Title IX initiatives as having a negative impact on those who bring accusations of sexual assault to the attention of colleges while bolstering legal protections for the accused.

A key provision of the new regulations narrows the definition of sexual harassment to include conduct that is severe enough to deny victims access to the college’s education programs. Dating violence, domestic violence and stalking were also added to the definition.

Pelosi slammed the rules as “callous, cruel and dangerous, threatening to silence survivors and endanger vulnerable students in the middle of a public health crisis.”

“That the Department of Education has spent its time finalizing this out-of-touch rule rolling back decades of progress instead of helping students and educators weather the coronavirus crisis highlights the staggering depths of this administration’s contempt for survivor justice and campus safety,” the House speaker said Wednesday.  

Conservatives and others siding with DeVos argue Obama-era protections under Title IX unfairly favored accusers.

Assistant Secretary of Education Kenneth L. Marcus said in a statement Wednesday that the new regulatory framework is “a game-changer.”

"It establishes that schools and colleges must take sexual harassment seriously, while also ensuring a fair process for everyone involved,” he said. “It marks the end of the false dichotomy of either protecting survivors, while ignoring due process, or protecting the accused, while disregarding sexual misconduct.”

But Pelosi said the decision is the latest move in the Trump administration’s “wanton war to destroy Title IX’s critical protections for students and holding schools accountable.”

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, promised a legal challenge, saying her group “won’t let DeVos succeed in requiring schools to be complicit in harassment.”

“Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration are dead set on making schools more dangerous for everyone — even during a global pandemic,” she said in a statement. “And if this rule goes into effect, survivors will be denied their civil rights and will get the message loud and clear that there is no point in reporting assault.” 

Title IX governs about 16,500 local school districts and 7,000 postsecondary institutions. Among other federally funded institutions, it reaches charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries and museums. The new rules primarily focus on colleges and universities, where reports of rape and sexual misconduct are more prevalent.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a 2019 survey found that nearly one in four undergraduate women at 33 of the nation’s major universities were victims of sexual assault and misconduct.

In addition to Pelosi, Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia also blasted the new Education Department regulations.

“The department’s final Title IX rule creates new barriers to justice for survivors of sexual misconduct. It imposes a higher burden of proof for survivors – which is more challenging than the standard used in other civil rights laws and will be particularly difficult to meet given the nature of many sexual misconduct cases,” they said in a statement. 

The new rules are set to go into effect Aug. 14.

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