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Betsy DeVos’s remarks on campus sex assault were right on target

THURSDAY’S SPEECH by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had been billed as a major policy address on Title IX enforcement, and the expectation was that she would immediately rescind Obama administration guidelines on how colleges and universities handle campus sexual assaults. Given this administration’s disregard for matters of civil rights, it seemed best to gird for the worst: full retreat. That Ms. DeVos instead opted for a deliberative approach, including public input about potential changes, was a welcome surprise. It should be encouraged by those who want a just handling of these fraught cases.

In remarks at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, Ms. DeVos said the Education Department would begin a notice and comment period to gather information and evidence to revamp federal guidelines dealing with campus sexual assault. A “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2011 fundamentally changed how colleges and universities respond to complaints of sexual misconduct by outlining the responsibility of schools receiving federal funds to provide equal access to education under Title IX.

Being held accountable — with the threat of a loss of money — forced colleges and universities to finally confront the problem of sexual assault and other misconduct. They were obliged to investigate, rather than cover up, complaints and to offer protections to victims of sexual abuse. At the same time, legitimate questions have been raised about whether there was an overreach by the Obama administration in its prescriptions that resulted in imbalances and injustices. Ms. DeVos, while crediting the Obama administration for bringing the issue of campus sexual assaults “into the light of day,” blasted the current system as failing both victims and the accused and being too onerous for administrators.

Advocates for survivors of sexual violence seized on her criticism — in particular her concern about the need for due process for the accused — as a betrayal that backtracks on protections for victims. But Ms. DeVos was unequivocal in stating that there must be no tolerance for sexual misconduct and that universities and colleges have a responsibility to combat it.

She is not alone in seeing some problems with how the guidelines have been implemented, as she illustrated with stories from students — both survivors and those accused — about how the system failed them. In a detailed examination, the Atlantic’s Emily Yoffe argued that many remedies pushed on campuses “are unjust to men, infantilize women, and ultimately undermine the legitimacy of the fight against sexual violence.”

Groups such as the American Association of University Professors and the American College of Trial Lawyers have called for changes in the standard of proof used in campus disciplinary proceedings. Professors in the law schools at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and other institutions wrote an open letter about their concern over the absence of due process.

Given the Trump administration’s track record and some of Ms. DeVos’s dubious staff appointments, it’s understandable that there would be wariness about where the department might be headed on this critical issue. But Ms. DeVos promised to “seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective and fair system.” She shouldn’t be attacked for that but rather made to live up to it.

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