Betsy DeVos Wants to Totally Change the Way Schools Investigate Sexual Misconduct

Betsy DeVos

The new rules would "adopt a clear definition of sexual harassment actionable under Title IX", which prohibits discrimination based on sex for schools and programs that receive federal funding, including protection from sexual harassment.

Under the new plan proposed Friday, colleges would have 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. Some colleges complained that the rules were too complex and could be overly burdensome.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten charged that the "announcement of Title IX rollbacks is the latest in a troubling pattern of Secretary DeVos' efforts to dismantle the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights and turn the federal government's back on students who are suffering, vulnerable, or disenfranchised".

DeVos' proposal would replace Obama-era guidelines she scrapped a year ago, saying they were unfair to students accused of sexual misconduct.

DeVos' plan is also likely to cut down on actions taken by the Education Department, which can penalize schools for failing to uphold Title IX.

One stipulation would narrow the definition of sexual harassment to mean "unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school's education program or activity".

Samantha Harris, a vice president for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the proposed regulations "make important strides toward ensuring that complaints of sexual misconduct will be neither ignored nor prejudged" and eliminate confusion that has led to "broad definitions of sexual harassment that threaten student and faculty speech" on campuses.

University administrators, conservative legal scholars and advocacy groups, including "men's rights" groups, have heralded the new rules, believing the Obama-era guidelines were confusing, lacked due process and were biased in favor of accusers.

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"It would encourage schools to just stick their heads in the sand, " she said. The proposal would adjust that rule, which now states an institution is liable if it has actual knowledge or should have had knowledge of the incident; the school would only be liable if it had actual knowledge. "The goal is to basically reduce the obligation of schools to address sexual harassment", Elizabeth Tang, an attorney at the National Women's Law Center, told Buzzfeed News.

Victims are further limited by new rules that would require students to report any assault to a Title IX coordinator instead of a trusted professor or adult, which only encourages them to stay silent.

But supporters say the proposal does a better job providing equal treatment to all students.

The department will collect public input on the rules before they can be finalized. Though the guidance officially noted that schools can choose between either standard, they cannot have the lower standard in place for students if "clear and convincing evidence" is required for accusations against faculty members and employees.

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.

The new guidelines will raise the bar for what constitutes as sexual harassment, which the Obama guidelines defined as "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature".

It also allows schools to use a higher standard of proof when weighing cases.

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