Betsy DeVos and the letter

Effectively investigating assault

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced on Sept. 7 that her department would be looking into how schools handle Title IX cases, which includes incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

In her remarks, DeVos did not outline any specific changes and, according to the Associated Press, said she would be seeking input from the public as well as universities to develop new rules and guidelines.

I am a member of the public, so I will submit my proposal to Secretary DeVos: Take this process away from colleges and universities, where they have no place.

Under the Obama administration, schools were urged to evaluate guilt by “preponderance of the evidence.” These policies were outlined in a letter written by then Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights Russlynn Ali, known as the “Dear Colleague” letter on April 4, 2011.

DeVos, according to the AP, declared that “the era of ‘rule by the letter’ is over,” and that under the Obama administration, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights was “weaponized” in order “to work against schools and students.”

In a speech at George Mason University, according to the AP, DeVos criticised how the current system has seemingly suspended the presumption of innocence in Title IX proceedings.

In addition to her issue with how these cases were judged, DeVos pointed out the administrators dispensing these cases typically do not have legal training, leading to the creation of what she referred to as “kangaroo courts.”

She does have a point. Most administrators do not have legal training, so why are they being allowed to handle the investigation of a felony-level crime like sexual assault? It makes no sense.

Allegheny College has had its problems with sexual assault. It has been the subject of two federal Title IX investigations by the Department of Education’s OCR, one of which is still pending. We are not unique in this regard. Currently, there are 360 open investigations against public and private colleges and universities, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Last semester, I worked with two other editors at The Campus to detail the stories of six Allegheny sexual assault survivors in a two-part series. Most of our survivors did not have much good to say about the process.

Since our story ran, two friends have thanked me for writing it along with my fellow editors and said they had also been assaulted, but had not reported it because they had heard such bad reports of the college process.

The theoretical reasoning behind having colleges handle the process is sound. Dealing with a college investigation is meant to be less traumatic for a survivor than having to report to law enforcement. In practice, however, the experiment has failed.

In fact, the only part of the process that really seems to benefit the survivor at all is the part DeVos seems intent on removing, the fact that cases are decided using a “preponderance of evidence” threshold, as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” as in a court of law.

Sexual assault can be difficult to prove in a court of law, where the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. It therefore is meant to be easier for a survivor to get justice through the college process than in the judicial one.

But, in the case of our survivors, most of their attackers received little to no punishment. It typically took the form of counseling sessions, online training or probation. The college often puts No Contact Orders in place, but as one survivor pointed out, on such a small campus, contact can often not be avoided.

The architects behind allowing institutions of higher education to handle these cases forgot colleges are essentially businesses. They need to attract and appeal to the best students in order to enhance their reputation. Honestly reporting the number of sexual assaults on their campus is, therefore, not necessarily in their best interest.

I recently learned that a fellow student was arrested last year for urinating outside of a residence hall. That was handled by the police, yet a serious crime like sexual assault is handled by the college?

It should be the other way around.

Having law enforcement handle these cases is not ideal. We have seen law enforcement mishandle sexual assault, but when they investigate, there is a publicly accessible paper trail of cases. Although names are omitted to protect the survivors, this allows some level of oversight.

This system would be far from perfect, but it is easier to implement and monitor change in a public system than in one that hides behind closed doors.

A small private liberal arts college like Allegheny is required only to report the number of cases. During the course of my reporting for The Campus on sexual assault, they were often reluctant to be interviewed about the way cases are handled and as a private institution, there was nothing we could do to make them talk.

Allegheny does have a role to play in this process. Sessions on consent and sexual assault have been added to first-year orientation, an important step for which the college should be applauded. Students, faculty and staff can help to change the culture that surrounds this issue and work to ensure that survivors are supported.

When it comes to actually investigating the crime, however, the college should play no part, other than to cooperate with law enforcement.

A better way to deal with sexual assault is needed. There are no perfect solutions, but there are solutions that allow us to hold people accountable.