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This is no time for Betsy DeVos to gut sexual assault guidelines

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spoke earlier this month during a student town hall at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

The White House’s unwavering defense of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has reinforced an unfortunate fact — the Trump administration is not disposed to believe women who accuse men of sexual misconduct.

That’s exactly why there are legitimate concerns about what changes Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will ultimately make to the Obama-era campus sexual misconduct guidelines.

Revisions are welcome; a wholesale gutting is not.

Since joining Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos has made no secret of her disdain for the previous administration’s 2011 directive. Known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, it required schools to enact “immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.” Failure to do so could endanger federal funding.


From the beginning, some worried how these requirements might infringe on due process rights, and DeVos seized on those concerns last fall. In a speech, she claimed the system had been “weaponized” to “work against schools and against students.” Colleges and universities, she said, had been “compelled by Washington to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment.”

According to The New York Times, DeVos wants to correct what she views as unequal treatment of the accused. Draft versions of her new directives would boost the rights of students facing allegations of assault, harassment, or rape, reduce liability for institutions of higher education, and encourage schools to provide more support for victims.

It’s possible that early predictions won’t reflect DeVos’s final edict. Still, it bears reminding that this is an administration that does not take sexual misconduct seriously — unless a Democrat is suspected. When Al Franken, then a Democratic senator from Minnesota, was accused of groping several women, President Trump railed against Franken in mocking tweets.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump invited several women who’ve accused President Bill Clinton of sexual assault to speak on a panel, less than two hours before his second debate against Hillary Clinton.


Yet now that it’s Kavanaugh on the hot seat, the president is in a familiar anti-accuser pose. He tweeted, “If the attack on [Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s first accuser] was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents.”

By Trump’s calculus, that makes Ford a liar.

Attitudes like that are exactly why 63 percent of sexual assaults are never reported. Having already survived trauma, no one wants to expose themselves to doubt, shame, disparagement, or worse.

This administration’s support for alleged predators fuels concern that its new campus standards for sexual misconduct could be “weaponized” against accusers, the charge DeVos made about the Obama-era guidelines’ effect on those accused.

At a time when neither the GOP nor this presidency are doing anything to shed notions that they are hostile toward women, DeVos’s decision on campus sexual assault standards could mark a needed sea change, especially after the considerable rancor generated by Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Her recommendations could help set a different course for this administration in the #MeToo era, one that respects both the rights of the accuser and the accused.

Let’s hope that optimism, however cautious, isn’t misplaced.