Admin resists potential shift in sexual assault policy

By MORGAN OME | September 14, 2017

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos declared last Thursday that she intends to roll back Obama-era policies regarding campus sexual assault. On Tuesday, the University announced that it does not plan to change its current sexual assault policies.

DeVos stated in a speech at George Mason University that Obama administration reforms hurt both survivors of sexual assault and those who were accused.

“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos said. “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach  does a disservice to everyone involved.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Hopkins Title IX Coordinator Joy Gaslevic affirmed the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE)’s commitment to addressing sexual misconduct on campus regardless of changes in federal guidelines.

“We are watching closely to see what the Department of Education will do with regard to prior guidance,” Gaslevic wrote. “[The University’s] policy regarding sexual misconduct remains in place and would not automatically change even if that guidance is rescinded.”

Dani Pitkoff and Mayuri Viswanathan, co-directors of the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), condemned DeVos’ comments for perpetuating harmful attitudes towards survivors of sexual assault.

“We are angered and disappointed by Betsy DeVos’ statement this past Thursday,” they wrote. “Not only does it threaten to undo years of hard work by survivors and activists, but it also sends a clear message that the Department of Education is more concerned with the comfort of rapists than the safety of survivors and their right to education on campus.”

DeVos has not specified her exact plans for changing sexual assault policies. Currently, colleges are required to investigate sexual assault complaints under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

In 2011, the Obama administration released a controversial “Dear Colleague” letter with guidelines for how universities should investigate sexual assault cases. If schools do not comply with the guidelines, they risk losing federal funding.

Gaslevic explained that OIE works to ensure that individuals who submit complaints and those who are accused are treated fairly and afforded due process. For example, she wrote that OIE offers all parties support services, notice of complaints received by the office, equal access to information and equal opportunities to be heard during any adjudication processes.

The Office of Civil Rights opened a Title IX investigation into the University in 2014. Gaslevic stated that the investigation is still pending.

“In addition, and independent of any administration guidance, Johns Hopkins remains committed to a policy and process addressing sexual misconduct that is fair, prompt, effective, and created with community input and best practices in mind,” she wrote.

Pitkoff and Viswanathan added that SARU will continue to support any concerned students.

“As an organization, SARU stands firmly with survivors both as a resource and an advocate, and will fight to uphold Title IX protections for survivors on our campus,” they wrote.

Junior Joseph Klein believes that DeVos’ comments are encouraging conversations on what is the best way to handle sexual assault on college campuses.

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with what Secretary DeVos is doing in terms of opening up the conversation because it’s a conversation that should be had,” he said.

He added that while sexual assault is an important problem, he does not think it should be judged by colleges and universities.

“Rape is a serious crime. It should be treated as such,” he said. “But... it makes no sense to have a college or university deciding what the punishment is.”

Senior Marisa Brand echoed Klein’s belief that colleges should not adjudicate campus sexual assault cases.

“I support the DeVos proposal of a model that would create independent Title IX regional centers who would coordinate investigations with colleges,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “This system could bring expertise to a process that needs it.”

However, while Brand believes there is room for improvement in sexual assault policies, she also does not want the issue to be overlooked.

“We do not want to return to a time prior to the Obama-era guidelines when sexual assault was often swept under the rug by college administrators,” she wrote. “However, the ‘Dear Colleague’ reforms caused an overcorrection at institutions that were fearful of losing federal funding which ultimately let due process fall by the wayside.”

Alyse Campbell, the sexual violence prevention, education and response coordinator, and adviser to the Bystander Intervention Training (BIT) program, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that BIT will continue to operate in its current state.

“We are not going to be making any changes because of Thursday’s announcement,” she wrote. “BIT is still mandatory for all incoming students. We will continue to encourage a culture that takes care of each other, that is supportive of survivors, and that is not permissive of gender violence.”

Sabrina Mackey-Alfonso, a BIT trainer, wrote in an email to The News-Letter that she thinks DeVos’ statements perpetuate problematic attitudes towards sexual assault.

“I know that I will not be changing the way I teach in my BIT sessions to align with DeVos’ views,” she wrote. “Instead, I will use it as another example of why we need to continue to combat rape culture.”

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