Earlier this month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered a powerful, passionate speech arguing that the Federal Government’s approach to dealing with campus sexual assault needed to be overhauled. Last week, the Department of Education took the next step in that process, rescinding the April 4, 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter and an accompanying 2014 guidance document. The Department also contemporaneously introduced a Q & A on Campus Sexual Misconduct to provide some interim clarification to institutions about their ongoing obligations to respond to known instances of sexual misconduct while new rules go through formal notice and comment.
FIRE is pleased with these developments, and it appears that the public is overwhelmingly supportive as well.
According to a recent headline by Rasmussen Reports, “Most Americans Agree with DeVos on Sexual Misconduct Cases.” That headline, however, is an understatement. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with DeVos’s statement that “Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.” 73 percent agreed with that statement, compared to only 6 percent who disagreed, leaving 20 percent not sure how they felt about it. (The underlying poll had a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)
While these numbers may surprise many who are following this issue, it was not a total shock to us at FIRE. The main emphasis of Secretary DeVos’s address was that the current system leaves plenty of room for improvement for both complainants and the accused. Instead of framing the issue as either being only about the rights of survivors or exclusively about the rights of the accused, she insisted that, “Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.” It seems pretty fair and straightforward, no? Most people that we have spoken to about campus sexual assault tell us that they too want allegations treated seriously, but don’t want due process sacrificed in the process either.
FIRE, like apparently most of the public, could not agree more. For a long time, we have lamented that the issue was too often viewed through a lens that falsely pitted the rights of complainants against the rights of the accused. We have long argued that the only long-term sustainable solutions to addressing campus sexual assault must pay more than lip service to the rights and needs of all students involved in these cases.
Now that the largely one-sided approach of the last six years is being revisited, the hard work of replacing it with a policy that is responsive to the needs of complainants and mindful of the rights of all students must begin in earnest. FIRE is glad that the Department is launching formal notice and comment to solicit view from all interested parties. We hope the dialogue spurred by this process will be productive, and we are pleased that the Department appears to be deeply committed to striking an appropriate balance. The public expects and deserves no less.