Gettysburg Anticipates No Changes Amid DeVos’s Statements on Sexual Assault
By Kate Delaney, Contributing Writer
On Thursday, September 7, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced her intent to rescind federal guidance for handling sexual assault allegations that lowered the evidentiary standard in such investigations, criticizing the Obama administration’s system as having “failed too many students,” even stating, “The results of the [Obama administration’s] approach? Everyone loses.”
DeVos claims that a system in which educators and administrators must also act as judges on sexual assault cases asks too much of these college officials, who are not experts in the field.
“Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously,” she said. “Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.”
DeVos suggested finding other alternatives, such as a “Regional Center model,” which establishes a center for trained experts to handle all Title IX investigations. Ostensibly, this would levee fairer punishments and reduce wrongful findings of responsibility.
The reaction to DeVos’s comments was mixed.
Advocates of due process for those accused of sexual assault praised DeVos after what they viewed as overreach by the Obama administration that, in their eyes, stacks the deck against the accused. “Obama’s policy resulted in a kangaroo-court system where accused students often don’t have access to counsel, the ability to effectively cross-examine their accuser (indeed, the Obama admin specifically urged that accused students not be permitted to cross-examine accusers), or even access to all the evidence in the case,” wrote David French in National Review. Putting more power in the hands of trained professionals and ensuring due process will lead to a more just system for all involved, they argue.
Still others, including former Vice President Joe Biden, were outraged by DeVos’s words. Biden stated, “[the] announcement that the Department of Education plans to rewrite key Title IX guidance which works to address and prevent sexual in our schools is a step in the wrong direction. The truth is, although people don’t want to talk about the brutal reality of sexual assault…it is our reality, and it must be faced head-on.”
Critics of DeVos’s statements are concerned that rewriting Title IX rules will only lead to weakening enforcement and adjudication in campus sexual assault cases and will allow colleges and universities to sweep cases under the rug.
Speaking on behalf of Gettysburg’s chapter of Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA), co-president Julia Burgess said, “Many college campuses are afraid of their sexual assault policies, many colleges, including Gettysburg, want more options and better sexual assault education for their students. While there are issues surrounding the falsely accused, of the few survivors who actually report their assault/harassment, only 2-8% of them are false. So while reform may be the way to go, her main motive for reforming the college policies are [sic] controversial.”
While Burgess agrees that more conversations surrounding sexual assault on college campuses would be beneficial, she believes DeVos overstates the prevalence of false reporting of sexual assaults.
“But, [DeVos] cannot just talk the talk, she must also walk the walk,” Burgess said. “She spoke about the flawed process and even gave methods to change them. While I personally do not know how it could work on a national scale, her efforts are much appreciated and I think they’re the road to a more efficient way for colleges to be held accountable, and the survivors to better navigate the stress of reporting.”
Student Senator Nick Arbaugh expressed concern at the lack of due process accused students have under the current system.
“Due process, like all constitutional rights, is a cherished and integral part of American morality,” he said. “We should never subtract from the rights of the accused, even when maintaining those rights can slow down the prosecution of the truly guilty.”
Gettysburg’s Associate Dean for Violence Prevention and Resolution and Title IX Coordinator Jennifer McCary disputes the notion that Obama era guidelines surrounding campus adjudication have led to a fundamentally broken or unfair process and takes issue with some of DeVos’s recent comments.
“[T]here are flaws to the current structure that the Department of Education has outlined. More can be done in order for the process to support survivors and provide fundamental fairness to the accused,” McCary said. “Here at Gettysburg College, we strive to support all of our students while remaining compliant with the law.”
According to the Student Handbook, the college conducts a “fact-finding investigation” in response to all reports of sexual misconduct, and, if the victim desires to become a reporting party, an adjudication process can ensue upon completion of the investigation. If an initial investigation determines there is sufficient information to proceed, the case can proceed to an informal resolution process when specific criteria are met or to the formal resolution process.
In the formal adjudication process, the Dean of Students, who may choose to designate a hearing panel, reviews reports from a conduct administrator and statements from the reporting and responding parties, and, using the preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e. it is “more likely than not” an outcome occurred), reaches a decision. That decision can be appealed by either the reporting or the responding party if specific criteria are met, and the result of the appeal is final. Both the reporting and responding parties may have an advisor throughout the process, although that advisor may not speak during meetings with investigators.
“The current model of allowing institutions to investigate and adjudicate works, there just needs to be more options available as far as resolution is concerned to best meet the needs of our students”, McCary continued.
Even if federal regulations governing college investigations were to change, according to McCary, “Gettysburg College will remain committed to providing an environment free of harassment and discrimination. Harassment and discrimination in all forms, including sexual harassment and sexual assault, and all other forms of sexual violence are antithetical to the values of Gettysburg College. Our goal has been and will continue to be to provide prevention education programs that effectively stop violence before it occurs.”
McCary also urged students to take note of proposed changes at the federal level and to voice their opinions.
“[Students should] be aware of the impact of any changes and concerned depending on what those changes are,” she said. “Students should be sure to voice any concerns to the Dean of Students Office and even to the Department of Education.”
For her part, Dr. Julie Ramsey, Vice President of College Life and Dean of Students, maintains that the college has no plans to change the institutional standard of evidence in light of DeVos’s recent comments.
“The College routinely makes improvements to the policies and protocols based on our own experience with cases, evolving best practice and what is in the best interest of our students’ health, safety and wellbeing,” she said in an email. “Of course, we make changes to policies as required by federal law, regulation and guidelines. We have no plans to change the evidentiary standard.”
Managing News Editor Benjamin Pontz contributed to this report.