The college sexual assault policy developed under President Obama is important and imperfect. It needs revision, not reversal.
Unfortunately, that task has been left to a new administration that is headed by a president who bragged on tape about grabbing women by their genitals. That’s today’s political reality, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moves to rescind the Obama-era approach and replace it with something she argues will do a better job of protecting victims and the rights of the accused.
As always, the devil is in the yet-to-be determined details, and DeVos needs to get them right.
Sexual violence on college campuses is not fake news and the Obama administration deserves credit for recognizing its pervasiveness. As DeVos said in a speech on the subject delivered at George Mason University, “The previous administration helped elevate this issue in American public life.” But as she also said, “good intentions are not enough.”
The 2011 directive, issued with the best of intentions by the Obama administration, called for college and university leaders to take action against sexual assault under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination. Many institutions interpreted that to mean that in order to make sure alleged victims were given a proper forum, the accused could be deprived of due process rights. Some institutions lowered the standards of evidence necessary to find a student responsible for sexual assault. Anecdotal evidence emerged to suggest that sometimes students were punished for sexual encounters that were consensual at their start.
Sexual assault is a crime and allegations of it should never be lightly dismissed or treated as a brand-harming inconvenience. Victims deserve support, respect, and a clear-cut system for reporting and adjudicating their allegations. There’s no sympathy here for perpetrators of sexual assault who whine afterwards about how their lives were ruined by what amounts to their own actions. But having a tribunal of college administrators reach conclusions about what really happened late at night in a dorm room or frat house is not the best path to justice. Local law enforcement should be part of any campus policy to address sexual assault.
In her George Mason University speech, DeVos put down these markers when it comes to addressing campus sexual assault: “One rape is too many. One assault is too many. One aggressive act of harassment is one too many. One person denied due process is one too many.”
She deserves a chance to spell out exactly what that means in terms of actual policy — with the understanding that she and the Trump administration have a lot to prove to a skeptical nation.