Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with advocacy groups on Thursday afternoon to discuss the federal guidelines on campus sexual assault — including groups representing students accused of sexual assault.
DeVos held three roundtable discussions with a "diverse group of stakeholders," according to a Department of Education press release, regarding the enforcement of federal campus sexual assault provisions. The Obama administration issued a "Dear Colleague" letter in 2011 outlining schools’ obligations for addressing sexual violence under Title IX (a 1972 law mandating that discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs is illegal).
Legal precedent has established that sexual violence and harassment are classified as discrimination, and one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
DeVos' first roundtable on Thursday was dedicated to survivors of sexual assault, a second was dedicated to students who have been accused and disciplined, and a third to representatives of educational institutions and experts.
The second group included students and parents from the National Coalition for Men (which has published photos of women it claims were false accusers) and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), which is included on the Southern Poverty Law Center's list of misogynistic websites.
The discussions were all closed to the press, but Jonathon Andrews, one of the accused students representing SAVE, told Refinery29 each attendee shared their personal story to the secretary, but didn't ask for specific changes to the campus sexual assault guidelines. Andrews claims he is a sexual assault survivor, who’s also been accused by two fraternity brothers.
He alleges the Title IX coordinator at his school didn't follow the federal guidelines. Andrews was expelled from Hanover College in February 2016 as a result of his fraternity brothers’ claims. Hanover is currently under federal investigation for Title IX compliance.
Andrews, 23, doesn't think DeVos should get rid of the current sexual assault provisions, but that additions should be made to the "Dear Colleague" letter. SAVE would like to see the letter completely overturned and replaced with new guidelines.
Based on his own experience, Andrews told Refinery29 he wants the letter to more clearly define due process procedures for the accused, make attorneys available for both the accuser and the accused, and require that both sides be provided counseling.
Andrews acknowledges the "Dear Colleague" letter was "trying to address a huge need in our system that victims are often ignored." But, he said the unintended result was "colleges felt like they had to find someone guilty until proven innocent."
In addition to advocating for clearer standards for due process, some advocates for the accused also argue that the evidentiary standard should be higher. Currently, the "Dear Colleague" letter mandates that schools should use "preponderance of evidence" (which means it was more likely than not), and some want instead for schools to use "clear and convincing evidence" (used in civil cases) or even "beyond a reasonable doubt" (the standard for criminal cases). Advocates for survivors say this will make it harder for colleges to address sexual assault.
Based on data from nearly 100 U.S. schools compiled by The Washington Post, students accused of sexual assault aren’t expelled from universities very often and more than 2o of the schools dismissed most cases. Students accused of sexual assault at these 100 schools are more likely to be reprimanded or ordered to attend counseling than to be expelled.
Survivors of sexual assault spoke to DeVos first, sharing their stories and explaining how the Title IX guidelines either helped them get justice, or fell short.
"I don’t think anybody is advocating that this should be an inequitable process," Annie Clark, executive director of End Rape on Campus, told Refinery29. What is concerning, she said, is that the falsely accused are advocating for a higher evidentiary standard similar to criminal standards.
"A college is not a courtroom," Clark said. "We’re talking about moving a dorm room or expulsion, not taking one’s liberty away. They’re two different systems designed to do two different things."
DeVos has come under fire this week for meeting with SAVE and other groups advocating for the accused, while the Education Department says it's hearing from all sides.
"The Secretary and senior Department officials have been engaged in ongoing discussions with students, parents, schools, advocacy groups, and experts to learn about their experiences and hear their views of how the Department can best fulfill its obligations to protect students under Title IX," the department's press release read.
Some Democratic senators, who are concerned that DeVos may repeal the Obama-era policies to help survivors, came out against her meeting with some of the controversial men’s rights groups.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray sent a letter to DeVos, obtained by BuzzFeed News, saying she was worried the education secretary would change Title IX provisions "in a way that will undermine the rights of sexual assault survivors."
Murray's fellow Democratic senator, Bob Casey, also criticized DeVos for meeting with certain groups. Sen. Casey wrote in a letter to DeVos on Wednesday, "It is disturbing that the Department of Education would place these radical groups on the same level as those working tirelessly to confront the crisis of sexual assault on our campuses."
DeVos has not yet indicated any specific changes she might make to the campus sexual assault guidelines. The Department of Education has already rolled back Obama-era protections for transgender students, and DeVos wouldn’t commit to upholding the Title IX sexual assault guidelines in her January confirmation hearing, so further roll backs are possible.