DeVos wants to overturn Obama-era campus sexual assault policies

People gather to protest proposed changes to Title IX before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Thursday.
People gather to protest proposed changes to Title IX before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Thursday. AP

The Trump administration intends to rewrite the Obama administration’s directive on handling campus-based sexual assaults, saying the system has failed both victims and the accused, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday.

Her stance sets the stage for a dramatic reversal of how Title IX, the 1972 law that bars discrimination based on sex in education, is enforced. She was sharply critical of the 2011 message to the nation’s colleges and universities from President Barack Obama’s education department that established how colleges should enforce the law..

“If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” said the message, which came to be known as the “Dear Colleague” letter.

DeVos, speaking at George Mason University, took dead aim at that letter, declaring that the "era of rule by letter is over." She did not immediately rescind the policy, but launched a public comment period before the Trump administration embarks on what she termed "a better way."

"Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach. With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today…," DeVos said. "Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined."

More than two dozen protesters, some of them representing campus sexual assault survivor groups, stood behind metal barricades outside and chanted "Stop, Betsy, Stop" and "Shame on you, not on us" as DeVos spoke inside an auditorium at George Mason’s Founders Hall.

"I’m glad she didn’t rescind it," said Gabriella Hutchinson, 19, a George Mason sophomore and a member of Know Your IX, a youth-oriented Title IX advocacy group. "But she talked about ‘both sides’ and, to be honest, I don’t think there is another side. Rapists and rape apologists shouldn’t get a say in this."

Democrats and women’s rights groups swiftly condemned DeVos’ remarks.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said DeVos “just made an open invitation to colleges to once again sweep this national epidemic under the rug, which could discourage women and men on campuses across the country from reporting sexual assault and deprive survivors of the justice they deserve.”

Planned Parenthood, in a statement, said “Survivors of sexual assault deserve an administration that stands behind them, not one that makes it harder for them to seek justice. This attempt to weaken Title IX’s protections is simply shameful.”

Title IX is a 1972 law that bars sex-based discrimination in education programs or other activities that receive federal funds.

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance,” that statute states.

Court cases have found that sexual assault fits the definition of sex discrimination.

But DeVos said Thursday that Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter spawned “hundreds upon hundreds of cases in the department's Office for Civil Rights, mostly filed by students who reported sexual misconduct and believe their schools let them down.”

“It has also generated dozens upon dozens of lawsuits filed in courts across the land by students punished for sexual misconduct who also believe their schools let them down,” she said.

That’s because “rather than engage the public on controversial issues, the Department's Office for Civil Rights has issued letters from the desks of un-elected and unaccountable political appointees,” DeVos said.

“In doing so, these appointees failed to comply with basic legal requirements that ensure our so-called ‘fourth branch of government,’ does not run amok,” she added.

DeVos had hinted that dramatic changes were coming for Obama’s directive. In July, she said too many students accused of sexual assault have been unfairly treated under the Obama directive.

“No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel that the scales are tipped against him or her,” she told reporters in July.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas