In today’s political culture, controversy is basically what we call a standard Tuesday afternoon. Decisions made any politician are subject to either intense scrutiny or praise, depending on whichever side of the aisle you sit on. However, in most cases, these decisions are rarely devil-spawn or godsend, but middling political choices that have a mix of benefits and flaws. An excellent example of this is current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s announcement that she will be reviewing Obama-era strictures on campus sexual assault, specifically changes regarding the protection of those accused of sexual assault.
For a little background, currently sexual assault on campuses falls under the jurisdiction of Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 that guaranteed equal educational opportunities and nondiscrimination with federal aid on the basis of gender. In 2011, under the Obama Administration, the famous “Dear Colleague” letter was penned by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This letter explained how Title IX encompassed aspects of sexual assault on campuses nationwide, but most notably stated that if college campuses did not significantly crackdown on college sexual assault cases, their federal funding would be put in significant jeopardy.
In a shocking turn of events, after receiving that information, colleges swung into action and started to crack down on sexual assault. Survivors were more proactively encouraged to come forward, and as a result, by 2014, 91% of schools reported zero rapes. And while that isn’t perfect, given most rapes still go unreported, it’s a marked improvement upon the previous decades numbers. That being said, there was a catch, primarily that one of the new measures taken by most colleges was significantly lowering the standard of evidence required to convict an accused student. The letter asked schools to have a “preponderance of evidence”, basically stating that all a college needed was more than 50% of the evidence to convince them that a student was guilty, as opposed to the previous standard of “clear and convincing” evidence.
Now, this is where we get into Secretary DeVos’s proposed reforms. She has stated that the conditions from the “Dear Colleague” letter were an extension too far, one which turned college hearings into “kangaroo courts” where administrators acted as judge and jury, all the while the civil liberties of the accused student were being trampled. As a result, she plans to put these regulations under review in order to ensure that accused students are given fair representation.
This is of course a sensitive topic, with 1 in 5 women reporting sexual assault at some point in their lives. So, this issue obviously needs to be taken exceptionally seriously, given that only between 2 and 10 percent of all reports are false. As a result, many advocacy groups have spoken out against DeVos’s plan, calling it a step back putting more women at risk. This is certainly the primary reason DeVos’s plans have stirred up controversy, especially given the spate of recent college sexual assault cases. In no circumstances, though, can a student's rights be put aside in favor of faulty evidence. Regardless of any crime, an accused person deserves equal representation, and if that is truly not given to them, as has happened on a few occasions, the current system may need adjustments. This isn’t an outlier idea either, as it’s an opinion shared by numerous other college students.
Fresh U talked to students from all sides of the political spectrum, and they all came to a general consensus in the end. Rylan Maksoud, a freshman at the University of Texas said “they [colleges] use the preponderance of evidence standard which means the accused is 51% likely to have committed the crime, versus 49% likely not to have committed the crime,” and as a result was in favor of increasing the standard for evidence. On the other hand, Luke Thomson, a freshman at Texas A&M, took a different view “given between 92-95% of college assault cases are true, it was a bad idea to increase protections for those accused.” Varsha Menon, a freshman at Georgetown University stated “it has proved exceedingly difficult in the past for survivors of sexual assault to gain justice for what has happened to them.” However, she did agree that if the current plan administered unfair justice to innocent students, it needed to be amended. Yet despite this, all the students interviewed stated that it was important that survivors receive proper justice.
As previously stated, political decisions are often controversial due to partisan beliefs, but this is truly a special case, as here, the controversy surrounds the execution of justice between the accused, and the accuser. It’s an incredibly fine line, one that we as a nation have overstepped many times before, and will likely do so again and again until we reach a proper balance. No matter what, we need to achieve that balance in order to continuously ensure that sexual assault is fought and dealt with vigorously on college campuses nationwide, and survivors are given the emotional and legal justice they deserve.
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