Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is proposing a major overhaul to the way colleges handle complaints of sexual misconduct.
The Education Department released a plan Friday that would require colleges to investigate complaints only if the alleged incident occurred on campus or in other areas overseen by the school, and only if it was reported to certain officials. By contrast, current rules require colleges to review all student complaints, regardless of their location or how they came to the school's attention.
It adds several provisions supported by groups that represent students accused of sexual misconduct. Chief among them, it says accused students must be able to cross-examine their accusers, although it would be done through a representative to avoid personal confrontations.
The Education Department says the proposal ensures fairness for students on both sides of accusations, while giving schools flexibility to support victims even if they don't file a formal complaint or request an investigation.
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"We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetrate it, while ensuring a fair grievance process," DeVos said in a statement. "Those are not mutually exclusive ideas. They are the very essence of how Americans understand justice to function."
But advocates for victims of sexual assault worry the proposed changes will discourage victims from coming forward, reversing a recent wave of reports bolstered by the #MeToo movement.
"We’ve even seen here a significant increase in hotline calls of people reporting and disclosing for the first time," said Amy Jones, CEO of the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center. "But when significant regulations and opinions come down from our federal government that potentially throw up barriers and reinforce some unfortunate cultural stereotypes about victims of sexual violence, I think that we're in serious danger of people again feeling they will not be believed and it is not safe to tell their story."
Among other changes, the proposal narrows what constitutes sexual harassment. While earlier guidance defined it as "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," the new proposal defines it as unwelcome sexual conduct that's so severe it effectively denies the victim access to the school or its programs.
Even if victims don't file a formal complaint, the proposal encourages schools to offer a range of measures to help them continue their studies, including counseling, class schedule changes, dorm room reassignments and no-contact orders for those accused of harming them.
Southern Methodist University (SMU) has put in a lot of work over the past five years, since federal investigation were brought in to assess how the university handled multiple sexual assault allegations.
SMU started a task force and implemented a series of policy changes to encourage victims to report sexual assault and ensure that the University follows through with an investigation.
Attorney Mike Guajardo represented one of the victims from lawsuits brought against SMU in 2014. He believes the new regulations DeVos proposed protect the interests of the schools over the victims, by limiting when schools are required to act and making victims report allegations more formally to an official like a Title IX coordinator.
"Well that's an institutional bureaucrat viewed by a lot of students, not your favorite professor, your resident advisor, who you have a relationship with,” said Guajardo. “Because when a victim comes forward, they want to be able to tell someone they trust, they have comfort in."