DeVos finalizes sexual assault rules that critics say ‘roll back the clock’

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee. Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos finalized rules Wednesday that the administration says will improve due process in campus sexual assault cases, but that critics warn could discourage victims from coming forward.

The new regulations expand rights for people accused of sexual misconduct on college campuses and make other changes to federal regulations governing schools’ obligations to respond to misconduct complaints.

DeVos said the changes will create a fairer adjudication system for all students.

“Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” she said in a statement. “This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process.”

But her critics say the changes will cause school officials to investigate fewer complaints of sexual misconduct.

“These rules deliberately undermine … vital protections and threaten the rights and safety of survivors,” Osub Ahmed, a senior policy analyst for women’s health and rights at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement.

Ultimately, she said, it will “roll back the clock” on efforts to ensure gender equity in education.

The changes will take effect on August 14, as schools prepare to begin a new school year.

Democratic leaders in the U.S. House also assailed the timing of the department’s decision.

“That the Department of Education has spent its time finalizing this out-of-touch rule rolling back decades of progress instead of helping students and educators weather the coronavirus crisis highlights the staggering depths of this Administration’s contempt for survivor justice and campus safety,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

The rule falls under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which outlaws sex discrimination in education programs or activities that receive federal funds.

Sexual violence on college campuses is pervasive, and college-age women are at elevated risk, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. About 23% of undergraduate women and 5% of undergraduate men experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation, according to the organization.

The issue is also of special concern to the LGBTQ community, according to Frank Bewkes, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. He noted that allegations of harassment appeared more frequently in Title IX complaints based on LBGTQ identity than in the general population.

DeVos, he said in a statement, “has consistently demonstrated a clear refusal to uphold the rights of LBGTQ students.”