DeVos ignites backlash with rewrite of campus sexual assault policy

Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosToday’s education system is perfectly designed for no one DeVos blames Trump transition team for shaky confirmation hearings Top Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots MORE ignited a backlash after announcing plans to revamp Obama-era guidance for colleges and universities on how to handle sexual assaults on campuses to better protect students who are accused.

DeVos, speaking at George Mason University’s Arlington, Va., campus, said the Obama administration helped elevate the issue of sexual assault in American public life and issued guidance in 2011 with good intentions, but good intentions alone are not enough.

“Justice demands humility, wisdom and prudence,” she said. “It requires a serious pursuit of truth.”

Civil rights advocates were quick to chastise DeVos for the policy change.

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“This is another cruel, heartless move from the Discrimination Administration,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in a statement following the secretary’s remarks.

“President Trump and Secretary DeVos are inviting schools to return to the days when survivors were shamed, blamed, ignored, and abandoned. Make no mistake: Title IX is working, and the only reason for this move is to legitimize discrimination and promote dangerous myths about rape.”

DeVos said she held a summit to understand all perspectives including those of survivors, falsely accused students and educational institutions — both K-12 and higher education.

“We are having this conversation with and for all students,” she said.

DeVos said the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students. She said survivors, victims of false accusations and campus administrators have all told her that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.

“That’s why we must do better because the current approach isn’t working,” she said. “Washington has burdened schools with increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines that even lawyers find difficult to understand and navigate.”

DeVos claimed the current system has led to hundreds of cases in the department’s Office of Civil Rights mostly filed by students who reported sexual misconduct and believed their schools let them down. But she said the system has also generated dozens of lawsuits by those punished for sexual misconduct, who also believe their schools let them down.

DeVos said any school that fails to take a report of sexual assault seriously commits discrimination but added that a school that uses a biased system toward finding someone guilty of sexual assault also commits discrimination.

“The rights of one person can never be paramount to the rights of another,” she said.

The Department of Education will launch a public notice and comment period to gain public input on a better way to enforce Title IX sex discrimination laws and create an effective system that protects the rights of all students.

The secretary claimed even the current definitions of sexual assault and harassment are too broad.

The move was anticipated, and critics sounded off Thursday.

Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, a leading national women’s advocacy group, said the idea that there needs to be more of a focus on the rights of the accused would be “laughable if it weren’t so terrifying and outright dangerous.”

“With one-in-four women sexually assaulted while in college — we are facing a national rape epidemic on our campuses, and today’s announcement makes clear that Betsy DeVos and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE are more concerned with protecting perpetrators than the survivors they sexually assaulted,” she said in a statement.

“Sadly, given Trump’s own history of bragging about sexual assault, I guess we should not be surprised. There are no two sides when it comes to rape. Period.” 

DeVos pre-emptively fought back against some of these arguments in her address Thursday. 

“Survivors aren’t well served when they are retraumatized with appeal after appeal because the failed system failed the accused,” she said. “And no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.”

In July, 20 Democratic state attorneys general led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro sent a letter to DeVos urging her to maintain the current sexual assault guidelines for college campuses.

“The Department of Education’s current guidance reaffirms the obligation of colleges and universities to protect survivors of sexual assault. Among other provisions, the guidance reaffirms that Title IX requires institutions to use a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard in investigating allegations of sexual harassment or domestic violence,” they wrote. “While we recognize that there is a great deal more that can be done to protect students and agree on the importance of ensuring that investigations are conducted fairly, a rushed, poorly-considered effort to roll back current policies sends precisely the wrong message to all students.”

– This report was updated at 1:55 p.m.