US & Canada

Obama-era campus sex assault rules rescinded

Demonstrators gathered as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepared to speak at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, on 7 September 2017 Image copyright Reuters

The Trump administration has overturned rules introduced under President Barack Obama for handling university sex assault allegations.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the previous administration's guidance was unfairly tilted against the accused.

Mrs DeVos said campuses would continue to confront such "horrific crimes".

But she added: "The process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes."

The new interim instructions will allow universities to decide the standard of evidence to be used when handling complaints.

The DeVos guidelines introduce the higher standard of proof option that there must be "clear and convincing evidence" in campus sex assault cases.

Under President Obama, universities were able to judge students based on a preponderance of evidence, instead of guilt being proved beyond a reasonable doubt as in criminal cases.

His administration's 2011 and 2014 college sexual misconduct policies also required colleges to investigate complaints even if there was a separate criminal inquiry.

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Media captionJulia Dixon filed a complaint against her university for the way it handled her sexual assault case

Critics of that approach said it protected survivors at the expense of the accused's rights.

The Obama administration took action after dozens of women said their sex assault cases had been mishandled.

In one high-profile 2016 case at Stanford University in California, an athlete's six-month sentence, after he was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious student, was condemned as outrageously lenient.

But Mrs DeVos said earlier this month: "Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach.

"With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today."

Advocates for sexual assault victims warned that Friday's policy reversal would deter victims from stepping forward.

"This is a blatant rollback from the strong and much-needed guidance that was in place," said Kim Churches, chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women.

House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi denounced the change as a "shocking attack" on women.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Betsy DeVos had hinted that the guidelines would be changed

In July, Mrs DeVos's top civil rights deputy, Candice Jackson, provoked fury when she told a reporter that 90% of campus rape investigations "fall into the category of 'we were both drunk'".

She said the majority of such cases amounted to "'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'".

Ms Jackson apologised, and a Democratic senator, Patty Murray of Washington state, called in vain for her to be fired.

Earlier this month, the Education Department said 360 sexual violence cases were under investigation at 250 colleges and universities across the US.