DeVos Seeks Change in Sexual Assault Policy

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos unveiled her plans to rewrite the rules of sexual assault investigations on Sept. 7 at George Mason University in a speech about upcoming changes. 

According to The New York Times DeVos stated that the Obama administration has “failed too many students” in forcing colleges to adopt procedures that sometimes infringed upon the rights of the accused. 

“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” she said in her address at George Mason University. “With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.”

DeVos justified this statement citing cases such as that of Matt Boermeester, accused of physically assaulting his girlfriend at the University of Southern California. Deputy Title IX Coordinator Emma Morcone does not believe that these cases are reflective of the procedures at SUNY New Paltz.

“Some of the examples DeVos has provided in the past are not really a clear picture of what we do here in terms of how we work reporting individuals or victims,” she said. “And also how we work when our New Paltz students are accused and when they are the attackers or the perpetrators.”

The response by advocates for victims of sexual assault was “strong and swift,” according to The New York Times and former Education Secretaty Arne Duncan spoke out against the DeVos investigation.

“This administration wants to take us back to the days when colleges swept sexual assault under the rug,” he said. “Instead of building on important work to pursue justice, they are once again choosing politics over students, and students will pay the price.”

New York State signed into law one of the most aggressive policies in the country to combat rape and sexual assault on college campuses. The “Enough is Enough” legislation requires colleges to adopt a set of comprehensive guidelines and procedures, a uniform definition of consent, a statewide amnesty policy and increased access to law enforcement.

Morcone said although there are a lot of unknowns given DeVos’ lack of transparency, since we are a SUNY school, a lot of the Title IX practices are determined by SUNY and New York State.

“If people are listening to DeVos without any kind of context of what we do here at SUNY New Paltz and New Paltz’s practices, she painted a picture that is so different from how New Paltz handles cases of sexual assault,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to realize and understand that and trust in our system that we really do treat students fairly and that we’re getting students all the services and support that they need.”

According to Dean of Students Robin Cohen-La Valle the reporting individual “drives the process” by selecting from numerous options for resolution and learns of resources for advisement and support available to them. 

“Interim measures can be put in place, including the provision of: alternate housing arrangements; ‘No Contact Orders’; academic class accommodations; adjustments in employment when needed; and other means to ensure safety, prevent retaliation and avoid an ongoing hostile environment,” she said.

According to The New York Times, DeVos vowed that college campuses were not headed back in the direction of sweeping sexual assault under the rug; adding that “one rape is one too many, one assault is one too many [and] one aggressive act of harassment is one too many.”

Title IX is a large umbrella that concerns issues of harassment and discrimination all the way to rape and sexual assault. It states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied by the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving financial assistance.”

DeVos first signaled changes to come back in July and has yet to reveal any details regarding specific changes. She did however promise to open up a public comment period which is an administrative step taken prior to any government agency issues new guidelines.

“We are consulting with SUNY Administration about how this may impact our current practices,” Cohen-La Valle said. “We’re happy to be part of the SUNY system that led the way on Title IX policy and we regularly review our policies and procedures to ensure we are providing the best possible support to our campus.”

According to The New York Times, DeVos also mentioned a proposal by the American Bar Association that calls for three-person independent panels to adjudicate any complaints. Additionally, she cited an idea to establish a system of regional centers, be it nonprofit organizations or a government agency, to investigate and adjudicate a reporting individual’s claim.

Other critics of the Obama administration also disagree with the influence of the involvement of alcohol on the event being investigated. In these cases, the decision often comes down to whether or not the woman was sober enough to give consent and critics argue that it is unfair to use a standard of proof that is lower than that of a criminal law investigation.

“Survivors aren’t well served when they are re-traumatized with countless appeals because the failed system failed the accused,” DeVos said according to The New York Times. “No student should be forced to sue their way to due process.”

According to the Student Bill of Rights, every student at SUNY New Paltz is entitled to due process and to “participate in a process that is fair, impartial and provides adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard.” Cohen La-Valle added that students are entitled to guidance through the judicial process from an advisor of their choice.

Depending on how and what an individual comes forward to report depends on what the process for the accused. The accused person’s position in the SUNY New Paltz community also larges affects the process; if the attacker is not a person affiliated with the campus, the judicial process is no longer applicable.

If the judicial process is not applicable, a victim can report the incident to local law enforcement to incite a criminal investigation. Additionally, there is no statute of limitations for the resources available to a reporting individual.

“[The reporting individual] always drives that process and controls that process, they always choose what happens next,” Morcone said. “First and foremost we want to make sure they’re okay and they’re getting the services they need to pave the way for academic and social success here at SUNY New Paltz.”

Although DeVos has been vague about potential changes, Morcone believes that the strength of the Title IX department and its team of affiliates at SUNY New Paltz will not waver.

“My hope is that no matter what happens at a federal level that SUNY New Paltz can still promote that culture of safety and respect for students to feel comfortable going forward,” she said. “I always want them to be confident in our process; that they know if they tell someone they are going to be taken seriously and that they’re going to get the help and the fair process that they deserve and I don’t foresee that changing at SUNY New Paltz.”