New DeVos policies could give credibility to those accused of sexual misconduct

New policies from Betsy DeVos provide more protections to those accused of sexual assault. Photo by Mari Lundin. 

United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is trying to change the policies that outline what an American university –  like Chapman – is required to do upon receiving claims of sexual misconduct, leaving each institution questioning what constitutes a clear example of harassment or assault and amplifying protection of accused students.

DeVos has proposed to rework the precise definition of sexual harassment to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” In addition, the rules on how colleges handle cases withdraw from Obama-era guidelines and advocate for a policy that would make it more difficult for victims to file a legitimate claim.  

The proposed guidelines contradict the previous secretary’s definition of sexual violence, in which anything “perpetrated against a person’s will” or without a person’s consent is deemed legitimate.

Her proposal, first leaked by the New York Times in August, give more protection to students accused of sexual harassment or assault by narrowing the definition and they also relieve colleges of responsibility for incidences that take place off campus and limit the liability of institutions that abide by Title IX procedures when it comes to matters of sexual misconduct.

Allegations could now require “clear and convincing evidence” rather than the current “preponderance of evidence” the Obama era has implemented.

“Students will feel less inclined to report harassment if these policies get approved,” said Kiley Snow, a junior biochemistry major. “I don’t think these changes will benefit students, especially victims, at all.”

In addition to following standard Title IX procedures, Chapman abides by state and federal laws regarding sexual harassment and misconduct policies. This means if the federal laws change, the policies that Chapman follows will, as well.

Should the proposals be implemented, victims of sexual assault and harassment will be even more reluctant to report crimes than they are now, said Dani Smith, Rape Crisis Counselor and Health Education Director.

Over 90 percent of women who experience sexual assault on-campus do not report it, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

“People who are violated minimize what happened,” Smith explained.

The definition of assault and harassment could also be weakened with the implementation of the new rules, making it more difficult for campus administrators to discipline those accused, Smith said.

Smith is also the leader of P.E.E.R. (Proactive Education Encouraging Responsibility) and C.A.R.E.S. (Creating a Rape-Free Environment for Students), which stand as Chapman resources that extend a shoulder for student victims of sexual misconduct.

Because her department is not in charge of investigations, Smith says all she and those involved in campus programs can do as counselors is act as confidential bodies of support for Chapman victims.

While Smith attempts to prevent harassment and assault through education, DeAnn Gaffney, the Lead Title IX Coordinator at Chapman, along with a team of university investigators, is in charge of the actual investigation process.

“Our Title IX investigation process is impartial and neutral so investigators hear from all parties,” Gaffney said.

Because the Department of Education hasn’t come out with an official proposal yet, Gaffney said the effect the changes have or don’t have will depend on how the policies are worded and structured.

Regardless, Chapman is required to follow local, state, and federal laws, she explained.

The new proposals from DeVos are “a step backward,” said senior kinesiology major and C.A.R.E.S. member Jess Quimpo, of the new policy. “It’s already hard enough for survivors to even go through such a process.”

Quimpo believes that narrowing the definition will further harm survivors.

“There is a problem of finding the right needs for survivors and/or the person who is being accused of sexual assault,” Quimpo said.

For immediate assistance on campus, students often turn to Public Safety. But, Public Safety does not respond to assaults alleged to have occurred off campus.

Should a student be assaulted or harassed, they can report to both the police and the university. But, each institution handles the situation separately, according to Gaffney.

Chief of Public Safety Randy Burba said that Chapman officials are designated to report any sexual misconduct allegation under Title IX that occurs on campus.

However, since the reporting policy only applies to instances that occur on Chapman grounds, if something happens off off campus, Public Safety typically turns over those cases to law enforcement, according to Burba.  

“The umbrella of [these instances] is a hostile environment,” Gaffney said. “Events off campus can create a hostile environment on campus so you have to analyze that very seriously, I mean I don’t know how you can exclude that.”

As of now, Public Safety complies with the federal definition of sexual misconduct. Thus, their response to each report may vary as the law does, as well.

Marcella Zizzo and Mari Lundin

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