U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is receiving harsh criticism from women’s and LGBTQ groups after she announced that the Trump administration would be reversing Obama-era guidance on Title IX as it relates to campus sexual assault.
Speaking at George Mason University in Virginia, DeVos accused the Obama administration of “weaponiz[ing] the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students.”
DeVos did not detail what changes would be made, but said the Department of Education would be seeking feedback from the public and universities on how colleges should respond to and deal with allegations of sexual assault, reports ABC.
The Obama administration previously established rules in 2011 requiring schools to investigate and resolve all complaints of sexual assault, even if there is a separate pending criminal case.
The rules also directed colleges to judge cases based on whether it’s “more likely than not” that an accused perpetrator committed the offense.
The changes were made based on fears that colleges would either bury complaints by rape victims in order to preserve their image, or would require accusers to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that their attacker had indeed assaulted them.
Advocates for survivors of sexual violence warned at the time that those strict standards would allow sexual predators to avoid punishment, harass their victims, and even become repeat offenders.
But others, particularly conservative-leaning elements, have argued that the Obama-era rules give too much leeway to accusers and violate the due-process rights of the accused.
In her speech, DeVos even derided the process being followed by schools under the Obama guidance of setting up “kangaroo courts” overseen by university officials who lack legal training.
“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” DeVos said. “These are non-negotiable principles.”
LGBTQ groups criticized the change being signaled by the Trump administration, with many noting that LGBTQ people are more likely to experience sexual assault in their lifetimes.
According to Stacey Long Simmons, the director of advocacy and action at the National LGBTQ Task Force, statistics show bisexual women are almost twice as likely to experience intimate partner violence or assault than their heterosexual peers, and nearly half of all transgender people have been sexually assaulted or harassed in their lifetimes.
Simmons also noted that LGBTQ people of color and those with disabilities are also at higher risk of falling victim to sexual violence than their white or non-disabled peers, respectively.
“Today’s announcement by Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos and the Trump administration to revise guidance on campus sexual assault points to a reversal of needed protections, especially for LGBTQ students and students with disabilities,” Simmons said in a statement. “Shame on DeVos and the Trump-Pence Administration for yet another example of their utter disregard for those who are most marginalized.
“There is simply no excuse for these harmful policy changes. We call on DeVos to leave the guidance unchanged and to ensure that transgender students, and students who have experienced sexual violence, have the support they need to ensure they are able to exercise their rights on campus.”
The Human Rights Campaign said that DeVos’ announcement of her intention to revise the Title IX guidelines with respect to sexual assault was sending a troubling message to victims, something that women’s groups also warned of in the wake of the Secretary’s announcement.
“Betsy DeVos is insinuating that she would prefer to take America back to a time when it was more difficult for survivors of sexual assault to receive justice,” Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “For the LGBTQ community, which faces disproportionate levels of sexual assault and violence, this decision sends a strong signal that the U.S. Department of Education will not use its full power to protect them from harm.”
Warbelow also noted that LGBTQ people are right to be skeptical of DeVos’ intent to change the guidelines on sexual assault, as the community was already burned by DeVos’ decision to reverse Obama-era guidance on the applicability of Title IX to transgender students soon after taking office.
By reversing that guidance, DeVos declared, on behalf of the Trump administration, that the government does not believe that Title IX’s protections apply to students discriminated or harassed because of their gender identity.
As a result, LGBTQ advocates say, transgender students may not be treated according to their gender identity, and could even potentially find themselves the victims of harassment or physical assault for failing to conform to stereotypical gender norms.
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