When a college student brings an allegation of sexual assault to campus administration, the complaint kicks off an internal investigation and adjudication process– which can vary a lot from school to school. But new rules released this month, championed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, will standardize that process and give more protections to accused students, including the right to cross-examine accusers through a third party.
“Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” said DeVos in a statement announcing the changes.
The federal gender-discrimination statute called Title XI has for years required schools to respond to allegations of sexual assault– generally with a dedicated investigator, who writes a report, which goes before a panel for a verdict. A “responsible” verdict can lead to suspension or expulsion from the school.
Now, under DeVos’ new rules, all universities will have to hold live hearings, ending the “single investigator” practice, and the new codified procedures will make these hearings more like criminal trials. Respondents, as the accused parties are called, are entitled to notice of the allegations and evidence against them, and are given the right to cross-examine their accuser through a third party.
The new rules are designed to protect students like John, who was accused of sexual assault. John, whose name is withheld as he is barred from speaking about his case as part of a settlement, was found responsible and suspended from his school. After an appeal within the university yielded the same result, he sued. His university rescinded the verdict, and paid out a six-figure settlement. “My anger over what happened to me is actually not directed at my accuser,” he says. “My anger and frustration are at the university administrators.”
While some see the new rules as a useful correction, to others, the changes will undo years of effort to address systemic failures to respond to victims’ needs.
VICE News spoke to students and advisers involved in Title IX investigations at different schools to see how the process works now, and how it might change going forward.
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