Day 6

Amid Kavanaugh controversy, Trump administration plans to relax sexual assault rules on campus

As the senate grapples with sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, the Trump administration is proposing to roll back the rules about how U.S. colleges deal with allegations of sexual misconduct.

Trump administration proposes to bolster rights of accused in campus sexual misconduct cases

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos shake hands at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Bedminster, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
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From tears to outbursts of anger, the world was riveted on Thursday by a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. that grappled with accusations of sexual assault against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The political turmoil has left many demanding that U.S. institutions do a better job of dealing with cases like these.

In the midst of that controversy, the Trump administration is proposing significant changes to the regulations that govern colleges' handling of sexual misconduct cases on campus. 

In the context of the #MeToo movement, many college and university officials believe "it would be crazy to scale back the commitment to combating sexual assault and harassment," Sarah Brown of the Chronicle of Higher Education told CBC Radio's Day 6.

Redefining campus sexual harassment

The proposed changes, which were leaked to the New York Times in August, are still in draft form and haven't even been formally published yet. They would narrow the definition of sexual harassment and limit the types of cases colleges are required to be held accountable for.

Brown said DeVos feels the previous rules enacted by the Obama administration "unfairly tipped the scales against accused students."

As a result, the new policies seem aimed at addressing false accusations and ensuring due process.

But some worry DeVos' proposed policy changes could result in a system where colleges are held less accountable for taking sexual assault seriously, Brown said.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Capitol Hill in Washington. Her department says it is weighing whether to allow states to use federal funds to purchase guns for schools. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

'Severe and pervasive'

Under existing rules, the definition used by colleges was straightforward: "any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature."

But according to the New York Times, the proposed new definition would be narrowed to include only unwanted sexual conduct "so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school's education program or activity."

DeVos' office told the New York Times it was in the midst of a "deliberative process," and would not comment on the information the paper had obtained.

In 2017, DeVos made her issues with the existing policy clear.

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

DeVos has support from campus groups across America that say the existing rules threw out due process and the rule of law. But others fear the proposals could discourage victims from coming forward, and that some colleges will investigate fewer incidents.

"[Their] worry is that colleges might no longer address some of the more minor instances of unwanted sexual conduct," Brown said.

Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee confirmation hearing to be next Secretary of Education on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 17, 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

The proposals come not just amid the #MeToo movement, but also after sexual assault scandals rocked several major college campuses in the U.S. 

From Hollywood to Wall Street, from college campuses to high schools, there's been a clarion call of people saying the current system fails victims of sexual misconduct.

Day 6 spoke with high school students in Maryland as the Kavanaugh hearings were playing out on TVs around the world. 17-year-old Oreet Zimand said the way we deal with these issues has to change.

"There is an opportunity for the country to come to terms with what's going on in high schools and make an unequivocal statement that this is not something that we're going to allow," she said.

Considering the momentum of the #MeToo movement and the anger over repeated systemic failure, Brown said it's obvious people will push back against the proposed changes on college campuses.

The proposals are still a long way from becoming laws. DeVos has committed to going through a public notice and comment period.

"There's no question that public feedback is going to incorporate this public outcry," Brown said.


To hear the full interview with Sarah Brown, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Click here for our interviews with Maryland high school students discussing the Kavanaugh hearing.