Commentary
By Helen Salita 11-21-2018

Last week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled the new regulations detailing how colleges and universities should handle cases of sexual assault and harassment. The regulations heavily focus on adding additional protections for those accused while restricting what schools are required to investigate and report. Victims and women rights advocates have denounced the new regulations, while men’s rights groups have applauded them.

DeVos said these regulations were badly needed to restore and ensure due process during school procedures. “We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetuate it, while ensuring a fair grievance process. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas.” She also states that schools must operate with the presumption of innocence in these hearings.

One of the biggest changes in policy is a new provision that allows for the accused to cross-examine their accuser at a live hearing. It does stipulate that the cross-examination will be carried out by a third party, a lawyer, or advisor.

The new regulation changes the definition of what constitutes sexual harassment. Under the Obama administration sexual harassment was defined as “unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature.” But DeVos narrowed the definition to “unwelcomed conduct on the basis of sex, that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.”

Schools are also able to decide to opt for a higher standard of evidence that must be met during hearings and also narrow the circumstances in which schools must investigate.

These new rules were not unexpected; earlier leaked drafts included most of these official provisions. Women and victim’s rights activists such as End Rape on Campus, are extremely worried about what these new changes mean for survivors on college campuses, especially in context of an administration that has been increasingly hostile to survivors of sexual harassment and assault.

Data shows that college is a dangerous time for many young people, especially women. It is estimated that one in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college and that more than 90 percent do not report the assault.

Ultimately, these changes will continue to make colleges and universities unsafe. These new rules could lead to a drastic decrease in survivors coming forward, especially if cross examination is a guaranteed consequence of coming forward.

These policies ignore just how much how much strength it takes for survivors to come forward, knowing all the obstacles and hardships they will have to endure. Instead of listening to survivors, the administration has continued to push the narrative that the #MeToo era has created an environment in which young men should be terrified.

President Trump said “It is very scary time for young men in America. It’s a very scary situation where you’re guilty until proven innocent. You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life, and somebody accuses you of something.”

This agenda portrays survivors of sexual harassment and assault, especially women, as liars out to ruin the reputations of men, specifically upstanding white men —Trump has no problem portraying brown and black men as thugs and gang members, here to pillage and assault American women.

These news policies don’t help keep students safe — they focus on the non-existent problem of false accusations. False accusations range from only 2-10 percent of reported assaults, though this figure is still somewhat misleading because it allows for inconsistent definitions and protocols in reporting. The definitions covered in false reporting range from false (the incident never occurred) to baseless (the incident doesn’t meet the element of a crime, but is presumed to be true), to unsubstantiated (there is insufficient evidence to prove that a crime took place). It continues to delegitimize women’s experiences and stories and says that they all must be viewed with skepticism and doubt, implying that women are prone to making false allegations.

The #MeToo movement has forced the United States to see just how much violence and harassment women face. Women are no longer willing to suffer silently. They are now talking about their experiences and are demanding that society, norms, and policies change in a way that offers protection and justice. But this administration, which has had many prominent and visible members accused of assault and harassment, have chosen to discredit women and protect the accused, by moving America back to a time where women had little protection.

There is a chance to fight back against this new regulation. Once it is published on the federal register, the public will get 60 days to comment, at the end of which, the government must take the public’s account into consideration before the regulation can be finalized. Once published, we must stand with survivors and demand that the government implement policies that will protect all of us from sexual assault and harassment.

Helen is the Campaigns, Mobilizing, and Media Assistant

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