U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued new guidelines regarding sexual assault on college campuses Friday, requiring a higher standard of evidence to find a student guilty of sexual assault. This move largely rescinds the new guidelines set forth by former President Barack Obama in 2011.
Under the Obama administration, a lower standard of “preponderance of the evidence” was needed, meaning that if more than 50 percent of the evidence given points to guilt, the defendant would be found guilty. Colleges are allowed to choose which standard they will conduct their investigations by, and as of now are not being forced to adopt the higher standard.
In a speech earlier in the month at George Mason University, DeVos spoke of her intent to change the system, saying it failed both the victims and the accused parties in sexual assault cases on campuses.
“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the ‘victim’ only creates more victims,” she said. “Any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation. But if everything is harassment, then nothing is.”
If the administration at the University of Michigan decides to implement the higher standard of evidence, some activists are worried that it would prevent survivors from coming out and reporting their assaults. According to a campus climate survey conducted in 2015, only 3.6 percent of students who experienced sexual assault reported it to an official resource.
Earlier this month, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen expressed in an email interview the University’s commitment to keeping campus safe.
“At this time, we will continue to follow our current policies and procedures for addressing matters of sexual misconduct on our campus,” she wrote. “We will be following the rule making process closely.”
The University’s own sexual misconduct policy was updated last summer, following a lengthy revision process and a push by the Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Center’s push for more training for bystander intervention and consent. The change in national enforcement standards for Title IX will not directly change the way the University handles sexual assault, as the guidance gives institutions more freedom in their enforcement.
Public Policy junior Lauren Schandevel, communications director for College Democrats, expressed her concern and frustration with this latest development.
“While it was obvious before that DeVos does not have students’ best interests in mind, this decision really indicates just how little she values their safety and well-being,” Schandevel said.
College Republicans did not respond to request for comment prior at the time of publication.
In a press release, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich, said the decision to alter the guidelines for enforcing Title IX will discourage survivors and is a disappointing move.
“Secretary DeVos’ announcement is an outrageous affront to survivors of sexual assault across this country,” she said. “We must protect due process, but what we cannot do is again tip the scales of justice against survivors. This decision does exactly that – it discourages survivors from speaking out and seeking justice and sends a message that instead of support, they will be met with doubt and skepticism. This is shameful and unacceptable.”