After a “really emotionally draining day“ of meeting with victims and those accused of sexual assault, the education secretary made her first public comments on the issue.
WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos signaled on Thursday that she intends to take a hard look at whether the Obama administration’s campus rape policies deprived accused students of their rights, saying that “a system without due process ultimately serves no one in the end.”
The comments, Ms. DeVos’s first on the issue of how the Education Department will handle sexual assault on college and university campuses, came at a news conference after what she called a “really emotionally draining day” of meeting with victims, students who had been accused and higher education officials.
“It was clear that their stories have not often been told, and that there are lives that have been ruined and lives that are lost in the process,” Ms. DeVos said, referring to accused students. But she was careful to say that she intends to protect victims’ rights as well.
“We can’t go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug,” Ms. DeVos said, “and I acknowledge there was a time when women were essentially dismissed. That is not acceptable.”
How to enforce Title IX, the 1972 law requiring schools to protect students from rape and sexual assault, is one of Ms. DeVos’s most difficult policy tasks, and her department has been under fire for comments made this week by Candice Jackson, who leads its Office for Civil Rights.
In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Jackson said that “90 percent” of sexual assault accusations on campus “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”
Ms. Jackson later apologized, called her remarks “flippant” and said they were based on feedback from accused students. That did not mollify victims of sexual assault and their supporters, who staged a protest outside the Education Department headquarters Thursday morning.
“Unfortunately those remarks are now out there, and at the highest levels they need to undo that damage by countering those myths about rape,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, which helped organize the demonstration.
Referring to Ms. DeVos, she said: “She has to reject the idea that rape is just regretted sex. She has to reject the idea that most women lie, and she has to say it and say it and say it again.”
One major issue before Ms. DeVos is whether to rescind a letter issued in 2011 by the Obama administration that urged colleges and universities to take a tough stance on rape on campus or risk losing federal funding. Another question is whether her department will instruct schools to change the standard of evidence used to determine whether students are responsible for sexual assault. The Obama administration asked colleges to adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard, a lower bar than the “clear and convincing evidence” threshold that many schools had been using. Some accused students have protested that the lower standard turned nebulous cases into grounds for discipline or suspension.
Ms. DeVos did not reveal her plans but hinted she would take action soon.
“We need to do this right, we need to protect all students and we need to do it quickly,” she said.
Among the accused students who told their stories to Ms. DeVos on Thursday was Joseph Roberts, who said he was three weeks from graduating from Savannah State University in Georgia in 2013 when he received an email from the university accusing him of sexual harassment. He was “summarily suspended,” he said in an interview, “pending the outcome of a hearing that never happened.”
Mr. Roberts, who enrolled in college after serving in the Navy and is now 36, said he was “deemed a threat to the campus community” and was not allowed to return. He was allowed to graduate by taking classes online. He sued the school in federal court, but the case was dismissed. A spokeswoman for the university declined to comment.
Mr. Roberts has been working in Washington with a group called FACE (Families Advocating for Campus Equality), but he said many lawmakers have not listened to him.
“This was the first time that I felt like a decision maker, like a government official listened and was sincere and she was patient and she cared,” he said.
National studies show that only a small percentage – between 2 and 8 percent – of students are wrongfully accused of sexual assault, and advocates for victims cautioned Ms. DeVos not to forget those who have been sexually assaulted.
“The rights of the accused are just as important as the rights of survivors,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, who has made combating campus rape a signature issue, and who spoke at Thursday’s demonstration. “But what we’ve seen over the last several decades is a disregard for survivors. Not only are they disbelieved but they are retaliated against for reporting these crimes.”