(CN) – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Thursday that the Trump administration will rewrite an Obama-era schools directive on sexual assault in an effort to balance the rights of victims and the accused.
Implemented under the “Dear Colleague Letter” in 2011, the Obama-era directive was based on the premise that Title IX requires school district, college and university leaders to combat sexual harassment, including sexual violence.
Women’s groups hailed the policy as a crucial step in cracking down on sexual violence on college campuses, but critics said it trampled the rights of the accused.
But a speech at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School on Thursday, DeVos said the current guidance undermines the due process rights of those accused of sexual assault or harassment.
“The current system hasn’t won widespread support,” DeVos said. “The result of the current approach is that everyone loses. Some suggest that this current system, while imperfect, at least protects survivors and thus must remain untouched.”
The current rules don’t even achieve that, she said.
“Survivors aren’t well served when they’re re-traumatized with appeal after appeal because the failed system failed the accused,” she said. “No student should be forced to sue their way to due process. It’s not fair if the only students who can navigate it are the ones whose families can afford to buy good lawyers.”
The revision process is expected to take months. DeVos said the administration will give all sides a chance to deliver their opinions on how it should move forward.
But even with those assurances, Carly Mee, staff attorney for victim’s advocacy group SurvJustice, said the decision was “disheartening.”
“Her statements today created widespread confusion about what the current state of the 2011 guidance is and how survivors’ rights are going to change moving forward. This in turn makes it hard to hold schools accountable for violations of Title IX. DeVos has now made students and survivors much less safe on campus by choosing to favor those accused of sexual misconduct,” Mee wrote in an email to Courthouse News.
Before DeVos spoke, about a dozen protesters gathered at the university entrance, chanting “shame” and “Betsy, go home!”
Inside, DeVos retold stories of students who were both victims of assault and accused of misconduct. Those accounts, she said, encouraged her to move toward revamping Title IX protections.
Too often, she said, the “uncomfortable conversation” has been presented as a “contest between men and women.”
“There reality is a different picture. There are men and women, boys and girls, who are survivors and those who are wrongfully accused. The rights of one person can never be paramount to the rights of another,” she said.
DeVos continued, “A better way means due process is not an abstract legal process. Due process is the foundation of any system of justice that seeks a fair outcome. Due process either protects everyone or no one. The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the victim, only creates more victims.”
DeVos went on to say the Obama era rules place undue pressure on university staff.
“We shouldn’t demand anyone become something they are not. Students, families, school administrators, are not lawyers or judges,” she said. “We shouldn’t force them to be so for justice to be served. A better way is also being more precise in definition of sexual misconduct.
“Schools have been compelled by Washington to use an ambiguous definition for sexual assault. Students have been punished for simply speaking their minds,” she added.
Hearing this, a small group of students rose from their seats and exited the auditorium.