Advocates Brace As DeVos Preps Policies On Campus Sexual Misconduct

Sep 18, 2018
Originally published on September 18, 2018 9:42 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is vowing to fix a campus sexual harassment system that she maintains is biased against the accused. With the Trump administration preparing to release new federal rules, advocates are gearing up for a battle. They are afraid a new system will diminish the rights of victims. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: DeVos appears to be making good on her promises to change a system she says has run amok. A draft of the new regulations posted online by the Association of Title IX Administrators suggests major changes. For starters, schools would have to investigate only the most serious allegations of sexual misconduct. And they could raise their standard of evidence so allegations would be harder to prove. Under the draft proposal, schools could also offer appeals to accused students but not accusers. And they would have to allow cross-examination of alleged victims.

CYNTHIA GARRETT: It's an improvement. I think they're trying to be fair.

SMITH: Cynthia Garrett is co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality. Education officials declined to comment on the leaked draft, but Garrett says it is in line with what the administration promised. She says she's especially glad to see a tighter definition of what counts as sexual harassment that would exclude, for example, a single inappropriate comment.

GARRETT: These are kids. I mean, they're just learning how to negotiate the social world on campus. And they make mistakes. And I think this helps bring it down to reality. You know, let's not be so easily offended.

SMITH: But others call the Trump administration's draft a throwback to the bad old days, when schools felt free to sweep complaints under the rug and victims were too afraid to report. Jess Davidson, head of End Rape on Campus, says she never would have come forward after she says she was assaulted as a student if it meant she'd be subject to cross-examination. She says just seeing the alleged perpetrator around campus was too much to bear.

JESS DAVIDSON: It was so traumatic that I would actually have to leave the library and go vomit. And so if I can't even handle sharing space with this person, why would I believe that I can handle being cross-examined by this person?

SMITH: Davidson says she's also concerned that under the draft proposal, schools would only have to investigate complaints made directly by alleged victims to designated campus administrators. So if a student only tells, say, a coach, the school wouldn't have to look into it, nor would schools have to investigate an off-campus incident at a frat house, for example. Attorney Josh Richards represents colleges.

JOSHUA RICHARDS: I think it will result in fewer investigations. Those investigations will be, on the whole, less likely to find students responsible for conduct and as a result, you know, fewer punishments.

SMITH: That also might mean fewer lawsuits from those accused. But Richards says, for schools, getting more latitude to set their own policies is a double-edged sword that may well open them up to new legal challenges.

RICHARDS: I think there is a very cautious sort of wait-and-see attitude about what sorts of new land mines this will uncover.

SMITH: Meantime, pressure on campuses from all sides is mounting. When Secretary DeVos officially releases her new rules, that will open a period of public comment, and advocates are already mobilizing to make sure their voices are heard.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.