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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos kicks off emotional battle over campus sexual assault rules

Lauren Rosenblatt, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- After barely surviving her confirmation battle and facing sporadic protests during visits to schools, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos could hardly have teed up a more fraught, emotional and divisive issue to launch her tenure: campus sexual assault.

Although almost no one is happy with the Obama administration's efforts to prod colleges and universities to more aggressively combat and investigate sexual assault on campus, there is little agreement on how to make things better.

Alleged survivors, accused perpetrators and even school officials all complain that the current system isn't working.

DeVos raised eyebrows with her outreach last month to students who say they have been falsely accused of assault. These students, mostly men, say the Obama rules have pushed schools to create a process that is stacked against them.

Campus administrators say the guidelines created unrealistic expectations, forcing them to effectively take sides even in cases where the facts are unclear, and to perform a prosecutorial role, often without proper training.

Even victims advocates say the current system has fallen short, leading some schools -- eager to protect their reputations and avoid the mandatory reporting and investigatory process triggered by the rules -- to discourage students from reporting sexual assaults.

Now there's a virtual race to gain DeVos' ear as she gathers information for what might be an overhaul of the Obama-era rules.

Obama released a series of guidelines in 2011 and 2014, detailing how colleges and universities should handle cases of sexual assault. Failure to comply with the rules -- which provided an updated interpretation and enforcement of the anti-discrimination rule known as Title IX -- may result in a review by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights and a loss of federal funding.

Although the guidance helped increase attention and resources devoted to the issue, victims groups say some problems persist, including difficulty in reaching a school's Title IX coordinator, lack of proper notice or information regarding an investigation and sometimes a reluctance to confront the problem.

"(We) still see this knee-jerk reaction that there's something wrong with the student who actually made the complaint," said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center.

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