UPDATE: On Friday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that she would scrap campus sexual assault directives instituted by the President Barack Obama administration, reported Politico.
Although the plan is effective immediately, the United States Department of Education still must conduct a formal review, and so it has provided schools with a document intended to address one of the most fiercely contested aspects of the Obama-era rules: the standard of proof required in a sexual assault case.
Under DeVos orders, college campuses can now opt to require a higher standard of proof from victims of sexual assault when pressing forward with accusations.
"The standard of evidence for evaluating a claim of sexual misconduct should be consistent with the standard the school applies in other student misconduct cases," reads the document, which Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center, pointed out as strange.
"Goss Graves said that seems to suggest the standard of evidence used for evaluating cases of sexual misconduct should be the same as the evidence used to evaluate cases of cheating or plagiarism," Politico wrote of their conversation with Goss Graves. "Colleges and universities should have different priorities when it comes to evaluating cases of sexual assault, she said."
In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has included an option for campus authorities to turn a sexual assault accusation into a mediation session if both sides consent. Alyssa Peterson, policy and advocacy coordinator for Know Your IX, said this is "the most frightening part of this for me.”
“It’s very intimidating for a victim to participate in a mediation session with their rapist,” she explained to Politico.
Given the dearth of compassion in how universities are already handling sexual assault cases throughout the nation, placing this responsibility in their hands is problematic, at best, and dangerous, at worst.
On Thursday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced she was scrapping President Barack Obama-era university directives on sexual assault and advocated for both survivors and the accused.
The 2011 guidance made it mandatory for school leaders to combat sexual harassment and violence under Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination. The move was praised by women's rights activists, but critics slammed the policy as stripping rights away from the accused.
"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. That's why we must do better, because the current approach isn't working," DeVos said. "This failed system has generated hundreds upon hundreds of cases in the Department's Office for Civil Rights, mostly filed by students who reported sexual misconduct and believe their schools let them down. It has also generated dozens upon dozens of lawsuits filed in courts across the land by students punished for sexual misconduct who also believe their schools let them down."
On paper, her speech generally reads well and emphasizes the establishment of an efficient process that respects both the accuser and the accused, a hallmark of American law. However, taking into account DeVos' previous meetings on sexual assault, this news is far from reassuring.
DeVos has opened her doors to sexual assault survivors and their allies, but she has also welcomed input from men's rights groups that defend alleged rapists with long-held misconceptions and outright lies rooted in rape culture. Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), one of the groups who met with the education secretary, opened up to Bustle in July about the contents of their meeting, and Co-President Cynthia Garrett revealed deeply problematic views on the landmark sexual assault case against Stanford student Brock Turner.
"[Turner's] vilified more than the worst mass murderer in this country. That family has been terrorized, that young man has been treated like public enemy number one," Garrett said. "Even if he did everything they said he did, he was almost as drunk as she was, they both walked out of there together, they fell on the lawn. Who knows what happened, whether she passed out or not. Maybe she did, I don't know... [They were] both so drunk that they didn't know what they were doing."
Groups like FACE seek to reframe the way the public views sexual assault, i.e. to cast the accused as the true victim. They believe that young men are under threat from an onslaught of false allegations, but there is ample evidence indicating that the current legal and social system is stacked against the survivor.
Researchers estimate that a mere 2 percent to 10 percent of rape allegations are false. In comparison, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that, between 2014 and 2015 alone, one in five undergraduate women were victim to some kind of sexual assault, a study supported by several others.
DeVos explained her meetings with men's rights groups are necessary because "[a]ll their stories are important," but Casey Quinlan of ThinkProgress noted that is "an example of false balance."
Furthermore, Quinlan pointed out that how sexual assault is reported in the media remains resoundingly slanted in favor of the accused. According to a study of 940 articles on rape and sexual assault by the Women's Media Center, 55 percent of the stories were written by male journalists, who by and large, referenced fewer female sources than the 31 percent of female journalists credited in bylines.
The research also showed that the gender of the journalist impacted how the story was told. Male journalists focused predominately on the accused, while female journalists were more likely to turn their lens to the survivor. Female journalists tended to cover campus sexual assault policies and campus rape culture, while male journalists tended to focus on the proceedings addressing the accusation and university sports culture.
"Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously," DeVos affirmed on Thursday. "Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined."
Her emphasis on inclusivity might be fair if the realities lived by countless survivors didn't indicate that, more often than not, it's their guilt that is predetermined.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters photographer Joshua Roberts