Sexual assault survivors and their supporters are appalled by the Trump administration's decision on Friday to roll back federal protections for students who are assaulted on college campuses.
After months of meeting with "men's rights" groups and taking steps to overhaul enforcement rules for Title IX, the federal law barring sex-based discrimination in schools, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suspended current guidelines and issued new ones that enable schools to increase standards of proof when disciplining students accused of sexual misconduct—guidance that experts, advocates, and survivors warn "will have a devastating impact on students and schools."
"This misguided directive is a huge step back to a time when sexual assault was a secret that was swept under the rug."
—Fatima Goss Graves, National Women's Law Center
"It will discourage students from reporting assaults, create uncertainty for schools on how to follow the law, and make campuses less safe," said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center.
"This misguided directive is a huge step back to a time when sexual assault was a secret that was swept under the rug," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of parents, students, alumnae, and school officials know what's at risk and have strongly urged the department to keep the guidance in place. It's reckless to ignore these voices."
DeVos said in a statement Friday that the move "will help schools as they work to combat sexual misconduct, and will treat all students fairly."
The interim guidance withdraws a 2011 Dear Colleague letter (pdf) that advised schools adjudicating sexual assault cases to apply a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, which requires more than 50 percent of evidence to support accusations. Now, schools may instead opt to use a clear-and-convincing-evidence standard, a more rigorous standard that's harder to prove, which critics warn will allow those who commit crimes to avoid punishment.
It also rescinds a Title IX and sexual violence Q&A document (pdf) issued by the Department of Education in 2014, and replaces it with a new one (pdf). The guidance is a temporary precursor to new rules that are in development, but require public notice and comment.
Lawyers and leaders of advocacy groups immediately expressed concern that under the interim guidance, and whichever permanent policies that follow, student survivors will be less inclined to report assaults, and perpetrators won't be held accountable.
"Today, Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration chose to tip the scales in favor of rapists and perpetrators," said Sofie Karasek, co-founder of End Rape on Campus.
"DeVos has tried to silence survivors by keeping us out of this process," Karasek continued. "With this recision, she is giving schools the go-ahead to deny survivors the right to appeal cases, drag cases on until assailants graduate, let rapists have a 'mediation' with the person they violated, and use a different evidentiary standard that gives a default advantage to perpetrators."
"Weakening guidance about and enforcement of campus sexual assaults is a horrific step back for crime victims' rights and for public safety more broadly."
—Michael Dolce, attorney
Michael Dolce, a Florida-based attorney who represents sexual assault victims, called the decision "reckless, unjustified, and completely unnecessary," and told The Hill he believes the guidance will discourage victims from reporting sex crimes.
"Weakening guidance about and enforcement of campus sexual assaults is a horrific step back for crime victims' rights and for public safety more broadly," Dolce said. "The move will also encourage colleges and universities to reduce, rather than increase, efforts to combat sex crimes—efforts that are already substandard and ineffective on numerous campuses across the country."
Brenda Shum, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said that "with her decision to pull the guidelines, Secretary DeVos has created a culture of confusion across the country that puts the civil rights of students in jeopardy."
Vowing to take legal action "if the Department of Education issues regulations inconsistent with Title IX," Shum added that "if Secretary DeVos genuinely listens to public comments and input, it will further demonstrate the need for rigorous enforcement of the protections against sex discrimination."
The announcement on Friday triggered a deluge of condemnation on Twitter, with many using the #StopBetsy hashtag.
— NARAL (@NARAL) September 22, 2017
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— Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA) September 22, 2017
Today, the Trump administration put the concerns of abusers over survivors. Again.
Trust survivors, always. https://t.co/9us5XuVKk5
— Women's March (@womensmarch) September 22, 2017
Relying on a higher standard of proof re: sexual misconduct than what's used for other discrimination is... discrimination #StopBetsy
— Women's Law Project (@WomensLawProj) September 22, 2017
— Know Your IX (@knowyourIX) September 22, 2017
This attack on Title IX and on survivors cannot be allowed to stand. pic.twitter.com/9U5QCcHJtF
— NWLC (@nwlc) September 22, 2017
DeVos is sending us back to an ugly time when rape victims suffered in silence & perpetrators were able to assault multiple women w/impunity pic.twitter.com/ocKUYSBGin
— Feminist Majority (@MajoritySpeaks) September 22, 2017
— AAUW Public Policy (@AAUWPolicy) September 22, 2017
— YWCA USA (@YWCAUSA) September 22, 2017