Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Friday, January 19, 2018

AU students condemn DeVos decision to rescind Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual assault

DeVos is “perpetuating the stigma” of sexual assault, one student said

AU students condemn DeVos decision to rescind Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual assault

A student holds up a sign during the April 2017 Take Back the Night event organized by Women's Initiative. 

Education secretary Betsy DeVos withdrew Obama-era guidance on how colleges and universities respond to campus sexual assault on Sept. 22, prompting strong responses from administrators and student activists within the AU community.

DeVos claims that the Obama administration’s approach to Title IX enforcement and campus sexual assault investigations created a “failed system” that was unfair to sexual assault survivors and the accused.

She specifically criticized Obama’s policy that schools use a standard called “preponderance of the evidence” when they considered sexual misconduct cases, a guideline that was laid out in a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter sent by the Education Department to universities. This decision could change how universities handle sexual assault under Title IX federal law.

AU students have voiced their concerns about DeVos’ decision, including Liliana Betancourt Ascencio, the president of Students Against Sexual Violence.

“Further amendments and rescindance of the Dear Colleague Letter are harmful and dangerous for anyone facing gender-based concerns around the nation,” Betancourt Ascencio said. “Modifications and creation of new guidances under Title IX are threats to the educational success and safety of those facing sexual violence on their campuses nationwide.”

Betancourt Ascencio said AU students should push back against DeVos’ policy changes.

“We must fight back against these threats to communities on our nation's campuses,” Betancourt Ascencio said. “Personally, I feel frustrated and upset that the premise of rewriting the Dear Colleague letter is based in victim blaming and myths about high rates of false allegation.”

Other students, like freshman Allie Papernick, said they are upset with DeVos’ decision.

“I believe that by rescinding Obama’s Title IX guidelines, DeVos is perpetuating the stigma, isolation and fear that is associated with sexual assault and violence,” Papernick said.

Fanta Aw, the University’s vice president of campus life, said on Sept. 8 that AU administrators are committed to fair process and equity in Title IX processes.

“We understand there is concern in our community around how potential changes in federal regulations may play out on our campus,” Aw said in a memo. “Any federal guidance that may come will be reviewed thoroughly with our community.”

According to Aw, the administration plans to continue involving the community in town halls and campus committees like the Sexual Assault Working Group and a new student-centered, efficient investigator model for investigating sexual assault cases.

Members of Students Against Sexual Violence recently discussed the potential ramifications of DeVos’ most recent actions with lead investigators in AU’s Title IX offices.

Betancourt Ascencio said that during this meeting, administrators assured the students present that they will do their best to adhere to the Dear Colleague Letter and guidance written during the Obama administration, though there is only so much they can do to evade federal regulations and guidelines.

“I want [students] to know that we believe them, and we are a space and tool to empower the voices of survivors,” Betancourt Ascencio said. “We, the Students Against Sexual Violence, along with many offices on campus, will fight for you, will believe you and will listen to your voices."

dignacio@theeagleonline.com


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