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DeVos won’t commit to upholding Obama-era guidance on sexual assault

During her confirmation hearing Tuesday night, Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos was asked by Sen. Bob Casey whether she would uphold the Education Department’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter regarding campus sexual assault.

Her answer didn’t satisfy the Pennsylvania Democrat, but every defender of due process rights should take heart.

The 2011 letter, which did not go through the proper notice-and-comment period, required colleges and universities to use a lower standard of proof when adjudicating sexual assault – typically a felony. The document also discouraged schools from providing accused students the ability to cross-examine their accusers, a staple of civil rights in the American legal system.

Casey first asked if DeVos would agree “that the problem – and that’s an understatement in my opinion – of sexual assault on college campuses is a significant problem that we should take action on.” DeVos responded without giving in to the hype that sexual assault is at “epidemic” levels, instead saying that she agrees that “sexual assault in any form or in any place is a problem.”

Casey then described the 2011 Dear Colleague letter and asked if DeVos would uphold the letter. DeVos didn’t give a “yes” or “no” response, but instead said she knew there were “a lot of conflicting ideas and opinions” surrounding the document, and would work with Casey and other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to “find some resolutions.” She added that it would be “premature” to commit to maintaining current policy.

That didn’t sit well with Casey, who then cited a widely debunked statistic claiming that one-in-five women will be sexually assaulted while in college. After the CDC report cited by Casey came out, numerous other surveys came to the same conclusion. But all of those surveys had similar problems.

Many of the researchers behind the surveys have acknowledged that they’re not nationally representative. They’re often self-selective, meaning those who have experience with sexual assault would be more likely to respond to the survey. The definition of rape was greatly expanded and even those who said they had experienced unwanted contact said they didn’t report their encounter because it wasn’t serious.

Yet this number continues to be thrown around by those, like Casey, insisting that college campuses are as dangerous as a war zone.

Casey then talked about his own bill, the Campus SAVE Act, which would codify many of the harmful policies of the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, including the low standard of proof. Casey noted that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education opposed many of the provisions of his bill, and pointed out that DeVos donated to the organization.

DeVos again reiterated that sexual assault is wrong, then said something that should be viewed as hopeful by defenders of due process.

“If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and the current situation better and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim – the rights of the victims – as well as those who are accused,” she said.

That’s as close to a defense of civil rights for accused students as DeVos could probably give in that setting. She’ll be condemned by activists for what she said, but advocates for due process should see her words as a chance to return some sanity to college campuses.

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