Oct 11, 2018, 4:01 AM ET

Betsy DeVos-backed sexual assault plan for colleges likely to spark heated debate

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The Trump administration is finalizing its plan for schools to deal with sexual assault allegations, according to advocacy groups and college officials who have met privately with senior government officials.

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The proposal, known as rules for Title IX -- the civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in a person's education -- is widely expected to limit the scope of inquiries by colleges and universities and make it easier for students accused of misconduct to push back.

Drafted by the Department of Education and under review by President Donald Trump's budget office, the proposal is likely to spark heated debate. It follows the bruising confirmation fight for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault at a house party when he was in high school three decades ago. Two other women made similar accusations. Kavanaugh vehemently denied all of them.

The revised guidelines are being pushed by a small group of advocates who have told Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and other high-ranking government officials in private meetings that they believe male students are often falsely accused and face expulsion from colleges and universities with little due process.

PHOTO: Meghan Downey of Chatham, N.J., protests as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announces changes in federal policy on rules for investigating sexual assault reports on college campuses in Arlington, Va., Sept. 7, 2017.The Washington Post via Getty Images, FILE
Meghan Downey of Chatham, N.J., protests as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announces changes in federal policy on rules for investigating sexual assault reports on college campuses in Arlington, Va., Sept. 7, 2017.

The Department of Education declined to comment.

The New York Times first obtained a draft of the proposal this summer, and at least one version has since been posted online.

Advocacy groups involved in the ongoing discussions said among the provisions they expect to see in the final draft is one that wouldn't require schools to investigate incidents that occur off campus, even if it involves students. Another provision would put schools on the hook to investigate allegations only if they're made to certain designated authorities, such as the school's Title IX coordinator. And the new rules would likely allow for more thorough cross-examinations, possibly requiring that the person making the allegation sit in the same room as the accused.

Cynthia P. Garrett, co-president of a group called "Families Advocating for Campus Equality," said she's been pushing for these changes because they give students accused of misconduct better opportunities to defend themselves.

"I don't want to make it difficult for people who claim to be victims to come forward. But it shouldn't be easy either," she told ABC News. "I think there should be a threshold for evidence or proof before you ruin someone's life."

Garrett, who also works with a similar advocacy group called SAVE, said she met with budget officials last week on the subject, a follow up to a meeting last year with DeVos. In 2017, DeVos convened several "listening sessions" with various stakeholders, including college Title IX officers and victims' rights groups, as well as FACE and SAVE.

Victims' rights advocates argue that DeVos is downplaying the problem of sexual violence on college campuses. They argue the new approach would unfairly tilt investigations in favor of the perpetrator and dramatically reduce the number of women willing to come forward.

"It limits the responsibilities of schools to respond to sexual assault ... and it doesn't take into consideration trauma" of the victim, said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, who up until this summer was working at the Education Department's civil rights office on this issue.

At stake are the billions of dollars a year the federal government gives to schools. To qualify, schools have to meet requirements under Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that prohibits gender discrimination in any education program that receives federal funding. Under Title IX, sexual harassment and sexual assault is a form of unlawful discrimination.

One major sticking point in the debate is disagreement on how widespread the problem of sexual assault really is. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the most recent assessment on sexual assault on colleges is from 2016. That survey across nine diverse colleges and universities found that 25 percent of women reported that they had experienced unwanted and nonconsensual sexual contact since entering college. But the study notes that it didn't collect details on the incident, such as the type of sexual contact.

So how common are false allegations? The same office reported it doesn't have that information and could only point to an FBI estimate from 22 years ago. That report estimated false accusations account for only 8 percent of cases.

But a 2016 government report warned that statistics on sexual assault can be tricky because studies depend on who's surveyed, what questions are asked and whether women feel emboldened to answer truthfully.

That statistical void has paved the way for both sides to speak about sexual violence in deeply partisan terms.

PHOTO: Activists occupy the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to protest the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Oct. 6, 2018 in Washington, D.C.Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILE
Activists occupy the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to protest the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Oct. 6, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

Last year, DeVos announced plans to replace Obama-era guidance and blamed a "failed system" for the "hundreds upon hundreds of cases" filed with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights.

"Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students," she said.

Helping to lead the effort under DeVos has been Candice Jackson, who wrote a 2005 book detailing assault allegations against former President Bill Clinton. She later swung behind Trump's candidacy despite reports that he faced his own allegations of sexual assault.

Garrett insists her push for new rules isn't partisan. But she argues that Obama-era guidelines were ensnaring "Eagle Scouts" and "highly intelligent" kids, rather than "predators." She also blames what she describes as extreme feminist ideology on college campuses that encourages women to see themselves as victims when, she said, the case may involve "two drunk kids having sex."

Women's rights advocates including Patel counter that this kind of rhetoric grossly distorts the realities of sexual assault on college campuses.

"The reality of it is that so few false accusations actually occur, and the number of survivors of sexual assault is really high," Patel said. "That's the issue we should be talking about."

Jennifer McCary, Title IX coordinator for Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, which recently hosted a conference on the subject, said she expects every administration to put its stamp on the issue.

But one point she'd like to see addressed is how the Education Department wants schools to respond if students come to them with off-campus allegations of assault -- if the final rules exclude off-campus sites, as expected.

And, she said, there can probably be alternative ways to ensure a person accused of sexual misconduct is given due process without requiring both people sit in a room for a cross-examination.

"We wouldn't want to turn our students away because it didn't happen in our jurisdiction," McCary said. Above all, she added, any regulation "should be supportive of all of our students."

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  • Yooper2053

    The study referred to is a very poor reference to make the statement in the article, (as if it was a conclusion of the study) that "one in four women who are seniors say they have experienced unwanted and non-consensual sexual contact since entering college."

    The study quoted in this article is not a representative survey, It is clearly stated In the executive summary of the government survey. Read the study, please!!

    The authors of the study make this statement:

    "Importantly, neither this sample of nine schools nor the data collected from the students attending them are intended to be nationally representative of all college students or institutions of higher education."

    However, since the survey "results" supported the narrative being pushed by the reporter, these inconvenient facts are left out of the reference. This is how "fake" news happens folks!

    The 9 colleges sampled for the study represent 0.12% to 0.19% of colleges in the U.S. The colleges sampled are anonymous....hmm, I wonder which 9 of the 24 agreed to be a source for the study? Be nice to know. The study was to evaluate the survey's effectiveness; NOT to actually take a survey.

    The government study group started with a list of about 7,600 schools that are surveyed by the Integrated Post secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to identify schools that would be potentially eligible to participate in the CCSVS Pilot Test. Per Wikipedia, in 2014-2015 there were 4,627 Title IV degree conferring schools in the U.S. Of those 7,600 schools 1,264 schools met the criteria for the study. Schools were then characterized by size, geography, location, 2yr or 4yr degree, and then a selection was made to represent the different types of schools and experiences that students may have; not to be a representative survey!! Through this selection 24 schools were invited to participate in the pilot study, and 9 schools agreed to be a part of the study. The school names, etc. are kept anonymous, so it is not a transparent study.

    So 9 schools out of 7,600 equals 0.12% of the total IPEDS schools, and 0.19% of the Title IV degree conferring schools in the US.

    Let's see some better facts to substantiate the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and abuse on college campuses. I do not condone or support sexual harassment or abuse at all, and people that engage in this behavior should be held accountable.

  • Thomas

    I don't want any school to investigate any allegations of sexual assault. Sexual assault is a crime and needs to be investigated by the police.

    Only after the police complete their investigation and the decision concerning charges are made should the school get involved in their own investigation.

  • Sally

    So a researchable fact that accused college men have sued colleges and prevailed for being denied due process was removed.

    Like it or not our US Constitution guarantees everyone accused the right to due process and colleges and universities are denying it.

  • Mike Hogan

    What they're really saying is that, generally, men don't sexually abuse women. It just doesn't happen. Any woman who says otherwise is lying.

  • John Springer

    He showed gumption and perspicacity in not kowtowing to his liberal peers. I am sue she is proud of him as well.

  • John Springer

    The challenge today is dealing with leftist fanaticism and zealotry. They feel so self righteous they justify any of there bad behaviors. They feel any means justifies their perceived self righteous ends.

  • John Springer

    She is bringing rational and intelligent leadership to the Dept.

  • Black Knight Fool

    This is deliberate and blatant fake news. She is changing it so that the judicial system handles rape allegations rather a handful of radical feminist in the University.

  • helicohunter

    This is horrible. It's hard enough to get a rape conviction when there is DNA evidence and even signs of injury because the perpetrator will claim it was consensual. Date rape is extremely common on college campuses. If it's an assault that doesn't leave DNA, forget about conviction unless there's video. Going through a criminal trial is traumatic for anyone, but it's far more traumatic for someone who is already deeply traumatized and barely able to function. Plus, victims don't always want perpetrators to go to prison. They often have very mixed feelings if it is someone they knew for a while. They've seen the good side of that person, as well as the bad side. They may just want the perpetrator to go to a different school so they don't have to see him anymore.

  • 01denese

    Can we get a plan to protect us from Republicans?

  • Warden347

    Garrett and DeVos -----GO AWAY!

  • Rubber Banned

    Sexual assault is a crime and should be prosecuted as such, with the rights of the accuser and the accused both protected. There should not be a separate standard on college campus' shaped by stereotypes and bias.

  • Truthful Opinion

    And Trump says it's scary times for young men in America. Women of America this just shows that your current government don't give a flip about you. So sad!!!