The Education Department's top civil rights official's "flippant" remarks are raising questions about the government's commitment to fighting campus sexual violence, even as she issued her second apology in as many days for attributing 90 percent of sexual assault claims to both parties being drunk.
Candice Jackson, assistant secretary for civil rights, told victims of sexual assault meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday that she was sorry for her remarks.
"As much as I appreciate apologies, which are difficult, unfortunately, there's no way to take it back. It's out there," said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center, who attended the meeting and relayed Jackson's apology Thursday. "What's extremely important now is that they do the hard work to counter those sorts of rape myths. They need to explicitly reject them."
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DeVos also met Thursday with people who say they were falsely accused and disciplined and representatives of colleges and universities to talk about the impact of stepped-up efforts by the Obama administration to enforce the law known as Title IX as it relates to sexual assault.
"We can't go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug," DeVos said at the meeting. "And I acknowledge there was a time when women were essentially dismissed. That is not acceptable. It's clear that there are failings in this process. A system without due process protections ultimately serves no one in the end."
The lawyer for a college football player who says he was falsely accused of sexual assault says DeVos sees federal rules on enforcement as unfair and in need of change.
Kerry Sutton was in the room with DeVos on Thursday when six people told "gut-wrenching" stories about being falsely accused of sexual violence on campus. "They made the point that we're not saying that sexual assault victims don't have important rights," she told The Associated Press. "We're just saying that the system has to be fair."
Sutton represents University of North Carolina football player Allen Artis, who was charged last year with misdemeanor sexual battery and assault on a female. He was suspended from football but has since been reinstated. He has said the encounter was consensual.
Michelle R. Johnston, president of the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College, said she suggested to DeVos that whatever policy the administration decides, it should give schools more guidance on how to comply.
DeVos' "listening sessions" came the day after Jackson was quoted in The New York Times as saying federal rules have resulted in many false accusations.
In most investigations, Jackson told the newspaper, there's "not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman."
"Rather, the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of, 'We were both drunk, we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,'" Jackson is quoted as saying in an interview.
In her apology on Wednesday night, Jackson said, "What I said was flippant, and I am sorry." She sought to issue reassurances that both she and the department believe "all sexual harassment and sexual assault must be taken seriously."
Asked about the civil rights official's remarks, DeVos noted that Jackson had apologized.
Advocates for assault survivors who have spent years trying to get schools to take victims and a "rape culture" seriously worry that DeVos' series of roundtable meetings are really a preview for changing former President Barack Obama's guidance.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called Jackson's statements unsubstantiated and said it minimizes the serious problem of sexual violence on campuses.
"For months, DeVos' Education Department has sent a chilling message to students and survivors by openly questioning Obama-era rules to protect students," Weingarten said. "DeVos' meetings today with so-called men's rights groups, and other fringe groups that want to silence sexual assault survivors' voices, legitimatize those efforts."
Sen. Patty Murray, the senior Democrat on the Senate committee overseeing the Education Department, said in a letter to DeVos that Jackson's remark "suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of campus sexual assault and suggests that (Jackson's office) is not prepared to take accounts from survivors seriously."
But groups representing those who say they have been falsely accused suggest the Obama-era guidance weighted campus justice systems in favor of those alleging sexual violence. Jackson said in the Times interview that investigations have not been "fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student."
Many of those who want Obama's guidance reversed have said they want assault cases referred to law enforcement.
As of Wednesday, there were 344 open sexual violence investigations at 242 postsecondary schools, according to a Title IX report provided by the Education Department.
Several schools had multiple cases pending, including Kansas State University and Indiana University at Bloomington with five each, the department list shows.
Baylor University in Texas had a single open case. The school has been embroiled in controversy over its handling of sexual assault allegations, and several women have sued. Art Briles was fired as football coach and Ken Starr was demoted from president and later resigned after a law firm reported in May 2016 that an investigation had found that the school had "created barriers" discouraging the reporting of sexual assaults.