Illinois victims advocates have mixed feelings about DeVos’ changes to college sex assault investigations – Chicago Tribune
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Thursday promised dramatic changes in the way universities and colleges address sexual assaults on campus, saying the current policy must better balance the rights of the accusers and the accused.
DeVos did not unveil a specific plan in announcing her decision to replace an Obama era initiative, opting instead to launch a comment period in which students, parents, advocates and school administrators can make suggestions. She made clear, however, that any new policy must provide more protection for students accused of sexual violence.
While calling sexual misconduct “reprehensible, disgusting and unacceptable,” DeVos said the pendulum had swung too far in the accusers’ favor in recent years.
“I am grateful to those who endeavored to end sexual misconduct on campuses,” she said. “But good intentions alone are not enough. Justice demands humility, wisdom and prudence. It requires a serious pursuit of truth.”
DeVos made the announcement at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where a federal judge last year ordered a student be reinstated because he did not receive a fair appeal involving a sexual assault allegation against him. The student, echoing an argument made in similar lawsuits across the country, argued the public university discriminated against him based on gender because the school’s sexual misconduct policies disproportionately punish men.
A Tribune series in 2010 and 2011 found that schools and local law enforcement often mishandled allegations of sexual assaults on campus. A study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics last year found that about 1 in every 5 undergraduate women reported experiencing sexual assault since entering college.
The U.S. Department of Education has 16 open inquiries involving sexual violence at eight colleges and universities in Illinois. There are 360 such pending investigations at 257 campuses nationwide.
“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos said. “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”
DeVos’ announcement brought mixed reactions from victim advocates in Illinois, many of whom were heartened that she acknowledged the need to address sexual violence on college campuses and agree the current policies could be improved. Still, they were troubled that the secretary talked more about the accused than the accusers.
“This is the first time I’ve heard her say that sexual assault is a problem on college campuses and that was good to hear,” said Veronica Portillo Heap, of Chicago. “But I feel she showed her bias toward first protecting the accused before the victims with the examples she cited. I don’t know if this means we’re going to be taking one step forward and two steps back.”
A University of Chicago graduate, Portillo Heap filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in July 2015 that alleged the campus’ policies and procedures pertaining to sexual violence failed to meet its obligations under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination. The department opened an investigation in February 2016, records show.
The U. of C. in recent years has made changes to its sexual assault policies, including new prevention programs, and created a website that explains the university’s policies, resources and processes, as well as options available for victims. The university also redesigned training for freshmen.
But Portillo Heap’s case remains pending.
“Sexual misconduct and all other forms of discriminatory harassment violate the standards of our community and are unacceptable at the University of Chicago,” university spokesman Jeremy Manier said in an email. “The University has a strong commitment to supporting members of our community on these issues, and that commitment is independent of legal requirements.”
The Obama administration made addressing sexual assaults on campus a priority in 2011, issuing a 20-page memorandum on how complaints should be handled and opening an unprecedented number of inquiries at campuses nationwide. The document — widely referred to as the “Dear Colleague letter” — dictated the standards by which institutions are to handle complaints, including a 60-day deadline to finish administrative investigations.
The edict proved both costly and complicated on some campuses. Many universities hired Title IX coordinators to oversee assault reports and revamp policies, in addition to incurring legal fees related to the significant increase in protracted federal investigations.
The University of Notre Dame was the subject of one of the first Title IX inquiries launched under the Obama administration’s revamped approach after the school was accused of mishandling a complaint that a football player had sexually attacked a student in 2010. The university, which agreed to implement a number of reforms as a result, views the existing federal policies as largely positive.
“Like any new initiative, ‘Dear Colleague’ had its share of hiccups when it was issued. But none that were insurmountable,” University of Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne said. “To the contrary, the previous administration succeeded in bringing sexual assault on campus out from the shadows. It also encouraged victims to come forward, and colleges and universities to support them when they did. These were and remain pluses.”
Notre Dame has two investigations pending, including one opened in December. School officials have not petitioned or spoken with the Trump administration about changing the current policy, Browne said.
Given the attention the issue had received, advocates and campus administrators have wondered for months about what President Donald Trump — who has boasted of grabbing women by their genitals without permission — planned to do. He did not specifically address the issue during the campaign, but the Republican Party platform approved during the convention called for the federal government to reduce its role in campus sexual violence investigations.