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State AGs Urge Betsy DeVos to Maintain Regs on Campus Sexual Assault Investigations

Betsy DeVos

The 20 attorneys general worry that any rollback of the guidance on handling accusations will endanger students.

Attorneys general from 19 states and the District of Columbia are urging Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to maintain the Obama administration's guidance for colleges on the investigation of sexual assault complaints.

The law enforcement officials wrote "to express our serious concern over reports that your office is preparing to roll back important protections for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses," reads the letter, dated Wednesday and spearheaded by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

DeVos last week hosted meetings with both assault survivors and so-called men's rights groups, including one that engages in rape denial. Also, DeVos aide Candice Jackson, who heads the department's Office for Civil Rights, has said that most assault allegations "fall into the category of 'we were both drunk,' 'we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'"

In the letter, the attorneys general say they are "deeply troubled" by that comment, for which Jackson recently apologized. "While we appreciate that Ms. Jackson has issued an apology, her comments communicate to survivors of campus sexual assault that the Department does not take their concerns seriously and that it is not committed to continuing its current efforts to combat this epidemic on our college campuses," the letter reads. "Coming on the heels of news that she has directed the Office for Civil Rights to reduce its efforts to identify systematic problems in conducting investigations, we have serious concerns as to whether Ms. Jackson can be entrusted to oversee a fair, thorough process in evaluating the Department's policies in this area."

The guidance for handling sexual assault accusations comes under the aegis of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that receive federal funding. The guidance was issued in 2011 and expanded upon in 2014.

"Among other provisions, the guidance reaffirms that Title IX requires institutions to use a 'preponderance of the evidence' standard in investigating allegations of sexual harassment or domestic violence," the letter states. "While we recognize that there is a great deal more that can be done to protect students and agree on the importance of ensuring that investigations are conducted fairly, a rushed, poorly-considered effort to roll back current policies sends precisely the wrong message to all students. Yet there is every indication that is exactly the approach your Department is taking."

"Critics claim the Title IX rules have skimped on due-process protections for accused students, while victims' advocates have insisted the federal directives are critical in providing rights for campus rape victims," notes BuzzFeed News in its report on the letter.

Shapiro told BuzzFeed News that the attorneys general, all Democrats, will take further action if DeVos does roll back the guidelines. "We are committed to ensuring these protections stay in place," he said. "And if need be, we'll take legal action to try and protect victims."

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas told the site that a weakening of the guidance would endanger students. "It's consistent with the new Trump policies where they are really leaving vulnerable populations to fend for themselves, and that's simply un-American," he said.

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