BY SAMANTHA GOETZ
On Sept. 7, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke on her plan to rescind Title IX and implement more detailed guidelines for handling sexual assault cases on college campuses.
Standing before the students and faculty of George Mason University, DeVos outlined the major injustices that both victims and those accused suffer from at the hands of a faulty system.
Title IX officially became a law in 1972 under President Richard Nixon. It prohibited any acts of discrimination based on sex by federally funded higher education institutions. Title IX opened doors for women and other minorities to attend such institutions and participate in athletics.
It was later, under the Obama Administration in 2011, the Office of Civil Rights issued the “Dear Colleague” letter in response to an overwhelming wave of sexual assault complaints on university campuses in the United States.
DeVos explained that during the Obama administration, federally funded schools received a letter now known as the “Dear Colleague” letter that provided specific instructions on how to handle sexual harassment complaints.
According to the “Dear Colleague” letter, investigations into sexual assault accusations should use the lowest possible burden of proof and come to a formal decision within 60 days. During that time, cross-examination of the accuser was highly discouraged as not to intimidate or further upset the victim.
The “Dear Colleague” letter is currently being used as the primary procedure for these cases. According to DeVos, the letter is doing an incredible disservice to not only those falsely accused, but also the victims and alleged perpetrators themselves.
“Schools have been compelled by Washington to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment,” DeVos said. “If everything is harassment then nothing is.”
DeVos suggests that while the objective of the “Dear Colleague” letter was well intended, it silenced those who had been falsely accused.
DeVos argued that the letter was a blatant overreach of the administration which resulted in unjust trials and failure to provide due process to the accused.
“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better save the victim, only creates more victims,” DeVos said.
In her speech, DeVos shared with the audience several instances in which the current system had failed students.
These stories illustrated instances in which students were denied Due Process, falsely accused, and even barred from campus without notice of his allegations.
On one particular story DeVos said: “Another student at a different school saw her rapist go free. He was found responsible by the school, but in doing so, the failed system denied him due process. He sued the school, and after several appeals in civil court, he walked free.”
Humberto Aristizabal, Salisbury University’s Associate Vice President of Institutional Equity and Title IX Coordinator, feels that the topic of sexual assault is one that is ever-changing.
“The revision of U.S. Department of Education (DOE) guidelines for the investigation of sexual misconduct at colleges and universities has been a much publicized and debated topic,” Aristizabal said. “While Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has promised that changes will include a standard notice-and-comment rulemaking process, this has not yet started.”
Aristazabal also explained that Salisbury University, being a member of the University System of Maryland, will continue to follow the guidelines set forth from the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights.
Due process is simply the right to defend oneself in a court of law. Some of the rights protected by due process include the right to be heard by an impartial judge, the right to an attorney, calling on witnesses to testify on their behalf and cross-examining witnesses and the accuser.
Although the investigation by the school is not taking place in a court of law, DeVos argues that the defendant should be able to defend themselves against the threat of expulsion or further legal action.
“No matter what side you’re on, as Americans, students have Constitutional rights,” Michael Melnick, a student at SU, said. “I do think better guidelines need to be put into place that everyone should follow.”
Melkin is one student in agreement with DeVos, believing that under the current structure it is easy for injustices to occur on either side.
“The guidelines should be able to protect the rights of both the accuser and accused” Michael said. “I think that students being falsely accused is really unfair and could be avoided if everyone’s rights were being protected equally.”
Tiana Ice, another student at Salisbury, feels as if too much focus is being placed on whether those alleged of assault are receiving justice as well.
“I feel like the law always sides with the assaulter and not the victim and it’s not right.” She said, “I am not for people violating other’s rights, but they [accused assaulters] forfeited some rights when they decided to sexually assault someone.”
Title IX is a topic that will remain in the national spotlight as schools across the nation continue control the sexual assault problem that faces the country. As Aristazabal mentioned, there have been rumors of adjusting the guidelines throughout the years,
While SU follows the instructions outlined from the DOE just as the rest of the USM does, the possible changes to Title IX could mean many changes at every university, and SU will have to maintain its stance against sexual assault.