Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday the Obama administration “weaponized” the federal law dealing with campus sexual assaults, and claimed the Trump administration will replace this “failed system.”
“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos told some 100 guests during a speech at George Mason University. “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved,” she said, arguing that the Obama administration “weaponized the Office for Civil Rights” with its 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter.
The OCR’s letter was a memo to college and universities demanding they enforce Title IX laws to better prevent sexual assault and harassment on campuses. Women’s and victim’s advocates groups praised the letter as a crucial step to combating a culture of sexual violence on college campuses, while critics, including the American Association of University Professors, argued that it trampled academic freedom and the rights of the accused.
“One rape is one too many,” DeVos said, assuring victims that “not one more survivor will be silenced. We will not abandon anyone.”
But she also stressed that denying students due process is not the answer and criticized mandates issued by the Obama administration, including lowering the standard of evidence required to find students responsible for sexual assault from “clear and convincing” evidence to a “preponderance of evidence.”
“We must do better because the current approach isn’t working,” DeVos said, before announcing the Trump administration’s plans to revamp guidance through a rulemaking process seeking public opinion about ways to implement a more effective and just system.
“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously,” she said. “Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.”
The announcement comes nearly two months after DeVos met privately with advocacy groups on both sides of the campus-sexual assault debate, including the National Coalition For Men.
C.D. Mock, a spokesperson for the National Coalition For Men’s North Carolina chapter, spoke to The Daily Beast in July about his personal investment in protecting rights of the accused and about NCFM’s goals.
Mock joined NCFM after his son, Corey, was accused of raping a fellow student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2014 and expelled from the school, despite initially being found “not responsible,” according to his father. (Reached by The Daily Beast on Thursday, a spokesperson for the university declined to comment on Corey’s case.)
“My son’s accuser was getting all kinds of assistance from various victim’s advocacy groups during disciplinary hearings,” said Mock, who was a wrestling coach at the University of North Carolina at the time and said there was no equivalent support system for his son. “I had no idea what to do or who to call,” he added, until someone at UNC connected him with NCFM.
Corey was readmitted after the Mock family sued the university, but was not allowed back on the school’s wrestling team.
His father became the public face of NCFM, a move that cost him his job at UNC.
“Those of us who are speaking on behalf of organizations like NCFM have nothing to lose because our names are already out there,” said Mock.
Mock’s son filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights after being expelled, but “nobody really wanted to hear our side,” he said.
“And I kind of understand that, because there’s been a history of college officials ignoring sexual assault,” Mock said. He and and other advocates for the accused believe that universities are now overcompensating for years of failing to adequately protect alleged victims of sexual misconduct.
“We want to protect women on college campuses too,” said Mock. “We just don’t agree with the way it’s been done.”
Mock and other advocates for the accused have called on DeVos for the Dear Colleague letter to be rescinded, which would pave the way for university officials to replace the “preponderance of evidence” standard mandated by OCR with a “clear and convincing” evidence standard that some schools previously used.
“We’re not rape apologists. We’re not advocating against rape victims. What we want is just better due process for accused individuals,” said Mock.
After DeVos’ meeting in July, 20 Democratic attorneys general eneral wrote a letter to DeVos urging her to maintain Obama-era sexual assault guidelines and condemning remarks made by Candice Jackson, acting assistant secretary for civil rights, who told the New York Times that 90 percent of campus sexual assault allegations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.” (Jackson later apologized for her “flippant” comments.)
“The likely action by Secretary DeVos compounded by the outrageous statements by Assistant Secretary Jackson was the impetus for us to put down a marker and say that we trust victims,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Joe Radosevich told The Daily Beast in July. “We’ve worked hard to change this culture on college campuses and we should not roll back the progress we’ve made.”
DeVos’ announcement on Thursday was immediately denounced by victims’ advocates and women’s rights groups.
KnoxYourIX, the national survivor-led campaign to end sexual violence on campus, issued a statement criticizing DeVos for sending a message “to students and survivors across the country that the Department of Education doesn’t have their back...We firmly believe campus discipline must be procedurally fair to both survivors and accused students — but DeVos and the Trump Administration have given us every indication their goal isn’t equality, but helping abusers and rapists avoid accountability.”
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who on Wednesday protested DeVos’ forthcoming announcement with survivors outside the Department of Education building, were among others who criticized DeVos’ announcement.
“With so many sexual assaults still happening on college campuses all over the country, we should be doing everything we can to make our Title IX enforcement policies stronger — not weakening or jeopardizing them,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “I don’t want to see an innocent person punished any more than I want to see a guilty person let off the hook, but Secretary DeVos has shown that she does not take the rights of survivors seriously.”