In another example of the Trump administration unwinding Obama-era policy, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Thursday that the department will begin the process of updating guidance for Title IX sexual assault investigations -- a move she said would ensure due process on campus.
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"One rape is too many ... and one person denied due process is too many," she said at George Mason Law School in Virginia. Studies put the prevalence of false allegations between 2 and 10 percent.
DeVos announced that the Department of Education will launch a "notice and comment process," the first step to rescinding the 2011 guidance, embraced by Vice President Joe Biden, to strengthen campus response to sexual assault by invoking Title IX regulations.
Title IX is a 1972 federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities In April of 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter making the case that the sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX. The letter instructed educators that it was appropriate to use a lower standard of proof, a preponderance of the evidence rather than clear and convincing evidence, as is consistent with the standard of proof established for violations of other civil rights laws.
At the time, Biden said "students across the country deserve the safest possible environment in which to learn. That's why we're taking new steps to help our nation's schools, universities and colleges end the cycle of sexual violence on campus."
DeVos asserted that this system created "kangaroo courts" and criticized the Obama administration for having “weaponized” the Office for Civil Rights.
"It's no wonder so many call these proceedings kangaroo courts," she said, referencing the lack of due process for both victims and the accused in on-campus sexual assault proceedings. “Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach."
DeVos also called sexual misconduct "reprehensible, disgusting, and unacceptable," adding that rape is a "sign of cowardliness."
It’s a thorny issue in higher education circles, where headlines from the University of Virginia to Duke to Stanford have highlighted sexual assault accusations and their impact on the accused.
The National Education Association, a professional interest group representing public school teachers that tends to support Democrats, released a response calling this an example of a President Donald Trump-DeVos agenda that scorns respect for survivors.
“This decision offends our collective conscience and conflicts with the basic values of equality, safety, and respect that we teach our students every day,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia.
The Department of Education has also faced fierce criticism over a comment the department's Asst. Secretary of Civil Rights Candice Jackson made to The New York Times that 90% of reported cases of rape “fall into the category of 'we both were drunk.'" Jackson later apologized.
"What I said was flippant, and I am sorry," Jackson told ABC News in July. "All sexual harassment and sexual assault must be taken seriously."
At a July listening session, DeVos heard from educators, victims and those accused of sexual assault, including so-called “men’s rights” groups like the National Coalition for Men (NCFM) and groups that speak out on behalf of the accused like Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE) and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE). The NCFM is considered by sexual assault activists to be particularly inflammatory. Survivors' advocates worried that DeVos' engagement with these controversial groups -- which opponents have dubbed "extremist" -- signals a possible willingness to shift the process to the advantage of alleged perpetrators.
“We are listening and we know that this policy has not worked in too many ways and in too many places and we need to get it right,” DeVos said at a press conference afterward.
DeVos also faced a question about Trump’s own history of sexual assault accusations. “Does having a president who admitted at least in private to sexual assault make your job harder on this?” asked a reporter.
“I think, again, this conversation is one that's important for all of us to be a part of because we have to get whatever policies we're going to have right on behalf of our students,” DeVos said.
The July press conference ended abruptly.