By Sue Loughlin The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did not announce specific changes to current policy but said the Education Department will go through a formal process seeking public input in replacing the current system. According to DeVos, the Obama-era directive led to cases of accused students harmed by unjust findings without due process.
The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.
As a victim advocate at Indiana State University, Amanda Hobson listened with great interest Thursday as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos discussed plans to replace an Obama-era directive on campus sexual assault investigations involving students.
In a speech at George Mason University, DeVos cited concerns that current policy denies due process to those who are accused of sexual misconduct.
"The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students. 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 in her speech.
But Hobson disagrees that the current system has failed.
She believes it's led to much progress in how campuses respond to sexual assault allegations. Because of that Obama-era guidance, including the so-called 2011 "dear colleague" letter, "I feel like ... institutions have taken very seriously their need to protect all of their students, to make sure all of their students have fair and impartial processes."
Hobson is not only a victim advocate at ISU, she also is assistant dean of students and director of the Women's Resource Center. She previously was a Title IX investigator at Ohio University in Athens.
Return to pre-2011? The 2011 directive reminded schools of their legal obligation to address sexual violence, and it also provided guidelines for investigations and hearings. The Obama administration took a tough stand and also threatened to withhold federal funding to schools that did not comply.
Hobson listened with concern to DeVos' comments. "I don't want to see us go back to pre-2011. That would be incredibly harmful," she said. Victim advocate is just one of her responsibilities, but prior to 2011, many campuses across the country didn't have victim advocates; now, they do.
Colleges "got very serious about how do we support people who have experienced sexual violence on our campuses," she said.
The Obama-era guidelines "also made universities do more preventative education, and that is incredibly important," she said. "A lot of people don't understand consent ... They don't understand what sexual violence is, and that stuff was laid out pretty well in a lot of the guidance."
At ISU, new students must take the online "It's on Blue" training, which focuses on sexual violence prevention and education. Employees also have mandatory training.
According to DeVos, the Obama-era directive led to cases of accused students harmed by unjust findings without due process. "Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously," she said in her speech. "Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.
DeVos criticized a key element of Obama's policy: that schools use a standard known as "preponderance of the evidence" when weighing sexual misconduct cases. "Washington dictated that schools must use the lowest standard of proof ... it's no wonder so many call these proceedings 'kangaroo courts,'" DeVos said.
Again, Hobson disagrees that the rights of the accused have been neglected or ignored. ISU not only has a victim advocate, it also provides an adviser to the accused. "So when someone has been accused of some kind of sexual misconduct on our campus, they do have the right to someone who understands the process and can be an adviser to them through that process," Hobson said.
The respondent adviser "helps them understand ... what their rights are," Hobson said.
At ISU, that person is Al Perone, who is associate dean of students/ombudsperson.
Hobson has worked on two campuses with many different professionals at those schools. Since the Obama-era directive, "what I see is institutions trying very hard to maintain due process rights, of both the survivor and the alleged perpetrator."
In Title IX proceedings, the person accused is called the "respondent," because they are responding to allegations, she said.
Hobson said she's received much training, including through the Association of Title IX Administrators, where she's been trained in Title IX investigations. She's also been to sexual violence prevention conferences put on by a national organization for student affairs administrators.
At those conferences, she's talked to victim advocates, Title IX investigators and deans.
"There is a very clear dedication to due process for all students involved," she said. But there also is great awareness that victims of sexual violence have been harmed by that experience and need support.
Hobson recognizes there have been mistakes in how some institutions have handled some situations, "but I would say from my experience working with other folks on campuses around the country doing this work that there has been a lot of progress," she said.
DeVos did not announce specific changes, but the Education Department will go through a formal process seeking public input in replacing the current system.
"In order to ensure that America's schools employ clear, equitable, just, and fair procedures that inspire trust and confidence, we will launch a transparent notice-and-comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties in developing a better way," DeVos said.
DeVos further stated, "We will seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise, and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective, and fair system." The new direction? Hobson will be very interested in learning what those changes will be. "I didn't hear any policy recommendations. All I heard was, 'this doesn't work.'"
Hobson also was troubled by DeVos' focus on students she believes were falsely accused as opposed to "looking at the impact this has on the safety of our campuses and then the impact these situations have on the victims of sexual violence."
ISU's victim advocate said, "I don't want to see us go back to a time when the default was to not believe survivors and when the default was to protect an institution versus protecting our students."
Leah Reynolds, Indiana State's associate vice president for inclusive excellence and Title IX coordinator, believes the university "does a very good job within our policy and procedures of making sure parties involved have due process."
While ISU will monitor the changes that will be forthcoming from the U.S. Department of Education, Reynolds doesn't believe that DeVos' speech signals an end to the federal office's commitment to addressing sexual assault on campuses.
In her speech, DeVos said, "Campus sexual misconduct must continue to be confronted head-on. Never again will these acts only be whispered about in closed-off counseling rooms or swept under the rug. Not one more survivor will be silenced. We will not abandon anyone. We will amplify the voices of survivors who too often feel voiceless."
Craig Enyeart, ISU assistant dean of students and director of student conduct and integrity, said that from his perspective, the university "does a good job of making sure all sides have access to support and due process and making sure the process is as fair to both parties as possible."
He also pointed to the role of the respondent adviser. "Just as the complainants have access to Amanda Hobson, the respondents have access to Al Perone," he said.
He noted that Leah Reynolds offices is responsible for review and adjudication of any equal opportunity or Title IX related situations, including campus sexual misconduct or gender violence.
His office deals with all violations of the code of student conduct.