Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is proposing changes to federal policy that will protect accused sexual abusers on college campuses, the New York Times reported last week.
The policy will allegedly reduce the liability of the schools where sexual misconduct takes place, while making it harder for victims of sexual assault to make a case against the accused by requiring more evidence than has been required in recent years.
More concerning is that these new changes will have the force of law without requirement for Congressional approval.
Current guidelines suggest schools adopt the “preponderance of evidence” approach, which is described as needing just over 50 percent likelihood of guilt to prove sexual misconduct.
The current guidelines also state that victims and abusers are not to be cross-examined by one another as it could prove to be traumatic for both parties and was deemed inappropriate. Under the new proposal these guidelines would no longer be in place.
These proposed changes came the week school started for most districts in the United States and sends a controversial and troubling message to students coming onto new campuses around the country.
Recently, as new students come onto these campuses several third-party organizations such as Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance and schools such as the Indiana University hold seminars — often mandatory — where students can learn about consent and safe drinking practices. The proposed changes that came out Wednesday are a slap in the face to these efforts.
Despite higher education administrators expressing concern with the Obama-era outlines, several schools across the country are experiencing very serious sexual misconduct charges against their staffs. Ohio State University, University of Southern California and Michigan State University are in the midst of sexual misconduct investigations into faculty members allegedly harassing or assaulting students over many years.
These changes seem to go against the tide of public opinion coming off the heels of the #MeToo movements explosive impact.
Enabling federal policy that echoes centuries-old victim blaming is counterproductive to the societal standards the country seemed to be making a severe push to finally eradicate.
Other changes include the redefining of sexual harassment on campus to “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.”
The Obama-era rules read “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” including “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
Adding the extra layer of the victim having to prove that the misconduct affected their lives is insulting and reinforces the belief that being raped or sexually harassed isn’t in itself traumatic and illegal.
Instead of spending government time and resources enabling abusers and making schools less liable, policy could be introduced to require schools to hold mandatory sexual misconduct classes with a focus on understanding consent, rather than defensive measures against predatory behavior. Until as a society we teach people to treat one another with respect for their own body autonomy, we are poised to keep making the same mistakes we have for centuries.