In the ongoing conversation of how colleges are required to handle complaints of sexual misconduct, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos continues to champion the rights of the accused.
DeVos has proposed changes in regulations to Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in colleges that receive government funding, according to The New York Times. The new regulations would establish a narrower definition of sexual harassment, making it easier for colleges to mishandle assault or turn a blind eye entirely.
The most shocking change under the new regulations: a person accused of sexual assault would be allowed the right to cross-examine the accuser in a courtroom. This practice was discouraged under the Obama administration for obvious reasons — anyone who has been assaulted can spend a lifetime trying to forget what happened to them, and the experience of testifying alone brings back traumatic memories.
The impact of seeing one’s assaulter in a courtroom and furthermore, being interrogated by them, is something that shouldn’t be legal at all, much less encouraged. It’s automatically set up to benefit the accused, and it’s something that no psychiatrist would ever sign off on.
While sexual harassment before was defined under Title IX as the very broad “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” the new definition DeVos has proposed is much more specific: “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.”
This new definition not only raises the bar of when colleges are required to take action, it discourages students from speaking out unless they know their experiences meet a certain threshold to be considered valid. It’s intended to invalidate anyone who might not be sure if what they experienced was “severe” enough to be considered assault.
At the core, universities exist to make money. They’re rarely going to choose to do anything that puts them in a negative light, even if it’s for the benefit of their students — admitting that sexual assault occurs on their campuses being a major one.
Reducing liability for colleges investigating sexual assault is the last thing that will make campuses safer environments for students. Colleges will no longer be responsible to investigate cases where no formal complaint is filed or the incident does not occur on campus, even if the accused party is a student of that college.
Whether assault occurs on campus, in an apartment or in a frat house, the university plays a role. A college is the foundation a frat builds itself upon.
Sexual assault victims have nothing to gain from coming forward about their assaults beyond justice. As a result, the number of confirmed false allegations is extremely low. Only 2 to 10 percent of rape allegations are fake, according to a 2010 study of 136 cases of assault.
So why does DeVos continue to prioritize the safety of people who are accused of assault above the safety of those who are actually assaulted? Maybe it comes down to a fear that if the administration adequately holds assaulters accountable at college campuses, it will have to do the same for people within its own ranks. Maybe it comes down to a fear of dismantling power structures.
A strange double standard exists with policy about sexual assault where even one instance of a confirmed false accusation is enough to forward a narrative about trying to implement policies like these, while thousands of confirmed cases of assault fall at the wayside. These policies are disproportionately made not to address real issues but to move forward an agenda. It’s not about fighting false accusations — it’s about decreasing the accountability of young men.