U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is calling for an overhaul the way sexual assault cases are handled on college campuses – but specifics on what that change might mean for schools in California and around the country have not yet been set.
In a speech Thursday morning, DeVos rejected the Obama administration’s efforts to force schools to more rigorously investigate charges and called for a new way forward.
"The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students," she said in an address at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia.
DeVos didn’t announce any sweeping changes to campus gender equality policies, but said her department will launch a public comment process to develop a different system.
"We can do a better job of making sure the handling of complaints is fair and accurate," DeVos said. "We can do a better job of preventing misconduct through education, rather than reacting when lives have already been ruined."
In California, the federal government is investigating 28 cases where schools possibly mishandled reports of sexual violence. The colleges and universities KPCC contacted Thursday declined to comment and some said it’s too soon to know what a change could mean for their campuses.
But Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, issued a statement calling DeVos’s remarks quote “extremely troubling.”
She wrote in a statement they signal an aim "to undo six years’ worth of federal enforcement designed to strengthen sexual violence protections on college campuses."
While DeVos repeatedly called the current system a failure, she did acknowledge that the previous administration helped to bring the issue of sexual assault out of the shadows. In 2011, a notice now known as the Dear Colleague Letter from the Office of Civil Rights put a spotlight on the issue, warning schools that they needed to be more aggressive in investigating complaints of assault, and in 2014 the Obama administration created a task force to combat sexual assault on campus.
"It feels as though we’re going back in time," said Aryle Butler, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2015.
She’s one of 31 women who filed a federal complaint against the university for mishandling her case and has also filed a civil lawsuit against the school.
"For years, that's what I did full-time – I worked on this issue and I tried to raise awareness," said Butler, "and to think that someone can come in and undo all of that work is a terrifying thought."
Butler was slightly encouraged to see the call for public comment, rather than a sudden announcement of a policy shift.
But the uncertainty puts campus Title IX coordinators, who may be the first line of response for sexual violence complaints, in limbo.
"I've had more faculty and staff say to me, 'What does this mean for us now, what are we supposed to be doing with this?' And we just don't know," said Bernadette Robert, Title IX coordinator at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. The private, women's college has no open sexual assault cases, but Robert says, with the uncertainty, it's a confusing time for people in her position. She also says policies were not completely clear under the previous administration when so much attention was paid to the issue.
One of the biggest areas for improvement she sees is to better align university policies and procedures with the criminal law system.
"We have got to look at how we align the work we’re doing so that we’re not going counter to one another," said Robert.