Photo by: Ron Aira/Creative Services

DeVos Announces Changes to Campus Sexual Assault Policy

SECRETARY DEVOS GIVES MAJOR TITLE IX SPEECH AT MASON’S ANTONIN SCALIA LAW SCHOOL

By Gemma Carretta and Henry Clay, Staff Writers

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced major changes to campus sexual assault policy while speaking at Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School on Sept. 7.

The changes in DeVos’ speech on the Arlington campus were not a surprise; they were foreshadowed in January when she answered that it would be “premature” to state whether the Department of Education would continue to uphold Title IX guidance related to sexual assault on campuses. During her speech, DeVos characterized the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter as a “good intention,” but claimed that “good intentions alone are not enough.”

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released the 2011 letter to clarify the process of reporting campus sexual assault. The letter made it mandatory for universities to allow those accused to appeal not-guilty findings, sped up the adjudication process to a recommended 60 days, discussed efforts colleges could take to prevent sexual assault, included reporting guidelines for victims and the accused, discouraged the cross-examination of accusers and threatened to pull public funding from universities that did not take sexual assault or harassment “seriously.”

Catherine Lhamon, the head of OCR at the time, defended the decision to publish the “Dear Colleague” letter, saying that it served as a “reminder” to universities about how they must protect students involved in sexual assault cases.

Supporters of the letter argue that it has played an essential role in persuading victims of sexual assault to come forward – a special concern because an estimated 63% of sexual assaults are never reported to the police according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Secretary DeVos emphasized that she was not alone in her critique of the current system, claiming the Education Department’s own research and contact with accusers, those accused, and universities had led to her decision. She recounted the stories of severely disillusioned students who felt that the current system not only fails to acknowledge the rights of the accused, but also fails to serve the best interest of those victimized by sexual assault. DeVos added that “guilt must not be predetermined,” but “survivors must be taken seriously.”

While the Secretary made clear her dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s Title IX policy, she has not yet stated her plan for how the Department of Education will handle sexual assault cases in the future. DeVos did promise that her department “will launch a transparent notice and comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties,” and will continue to “explore all alternatives to help schools enforce Title IX.”

However, “the era of rule by letter is over,” DeVos promised.

The Friday following DeVos’ speech, President Cabrera emailed a letter to all of Mason. It announced the launch of diversity.gmu.edu/sexual-misconduct, a new site containing information and resources on support, advocacy, and sexual assault prevention.

Cabrera said in the email that Mason “will be following closely any changes forthcoming in federal regulations, as communicated by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos,” and will offer input during the review process.

Photo Courtesy of Ron Aira/Creative Services