A fair share of high-stakes political actions have occurred in the past couple of weeks. Trump’s decision to end DACA took center stage, with many concerned about the far-reaching consequences of such an action. A story less emphasized yet equally as important was Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ announcement to modify college campus sexual assault policies in the near future. With the issue of sexual assault on campuses continuing to be a highly debated topic, this announcement has drawn a considerable amount of controversy.
First, some recent background on the issue. As college students attuned to hearing and reading about issues in the news, many of us are likely aware of the number of high-profile and severe sexual assault cases on campuses in recent years, including on our own. Lawmakers and activists have been trying to address the issue in what they believe to be the best way.
DeVos’s speech at George Mason University addressed how universities have dealt with sexual assault claims in recent years. While she acknowledged that “the previous administration helped elevate this issue in American public life,” she also emphasized her belief that the system put in place by the Obama Administration created a “current reality” not beneficial to survivors, accused students, and universities. DeVos was mainly referencing the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011, which updated campus sexual assault policies to require universities to investigate and deal with crimes, thereby making it safer for students on campus. The letter laid out required measures for university officials dealing with reports of sexual assault. However, the letter drew controversy for its instruction for schools to adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard when prosecuting perpetrators. In other words, that schools should find the accused assaulter guilty if at least 50 percent of the evidence points to their guilt. This is a lower standard than many schools previously used, as well as much lower than that used in criminal courts, which require guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest standard of proof.
DeVos emphasized that this specific part of the policy as well as measures that burden universities have not served to protect both the victims and the accused. She believes accused students often receive unfair treatment as a result of the adjudication process, but also that victims suffer even more when they are forced to go through traumatizing recounts of the incidents with multiple appeals. Additionally, DeVos and others believe that such a low standard of proof is troubling in that it is a blatant violation of the rights of the accused. In several cases, the lives of accused students on and off campus are forever changed when there is not convincing evidence unlawful sexual conduct happened.
Despite the intentions of DeVos’ vision, the announcement quickly drew backlash from some who believe DeVos focused heavily on the issue of due process and did not emphasize victims’ rights as much as she should have. Others, such as former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, believe DeVos’ plan will lead us back to the days when colleges tried to brush off sexual assault claims, as well as cause students to believe they won’t be lawfully protected.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that many sexual assaults on campus happen under the influence of alcohol, often with no witnesses other than the victim and accused. When assaults do happen, there is often no evidence to prove the perpetrator’s guilt. Rights of victims must also be kept in mind if policies are to change, as this personal story published last week in The New York Times argues.
Also troubled by the speech were university students themselves. The University of Baltimore announced the week prior that DeVos would be speaking at commencement. By Monday after the speech, students had started a petition and planned to hold rallies on campus. DeVos had been a controversial figure since her appointment, and students believed a speaker “in direct contradiction to values at the university,” should not be invited to speak at commencement.
With differing opinions and beliefs, it is clear that finding an adequate way to address sexual assault on college campuses is extremely difficult, as the issues are often complex, each case unique in its details and consequences. Perhaps, as DeVos mentioned as a possible proposal, universities should employ independent panels to judge cases. Or, as another proposal suggested, perhaps universities should play less of a role and allow nonprofit or government organizations to investigate and prosecute claims. However, many believe criminal law is not the right way for colleges to approach sexual assault cases either because they do not have the same legal powers as law enforcement.
While it is important to develop a proper system for adjudicating sexual assault crimes on college campuses, it is also important to remember the root problem we are addressing: that one assault, one rape, is one too many.
Unfortunately, sexual assault crimes don’t stop at college campuses. In the last year alone, news has been riddled with several stories of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, at large corporations like Fox News and Uber. Just last week, a full scandal came out regarding the culture of sexual harassment at the online financial startup Social Finance, or SoFi, after the top executive, Mike Cagney, resigned. Cagney’s actions and the actions of several other managers and supervisors went on for years, with no action taken by the company until last week.
It’s not difficult to see how perpetrators of sexual violence on college campuses can turn into the bosses and executives that threaten victims’ careers in the future. This is precisely why sexual assault crimes need to be appropriately addressed and punished at universities. While the debate over the campus requirements for handling sexual assault continues, we should continue to discuss this issue in every context, in order to send the message that sexual assault can never be tolerated.