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Civil Rights

Attorneys General Sue Over Betsy DeVos’s New Sexual Assault Rules for Schools

— June 6, 2020

Under DeVos, the Department of Education wants to let student rapists cross-examine their accusers.

A coalition of Democratic attorneys general have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s guidance for schools and universities in the handling of sexual assault complaints.

The lawsuit, says The Associated Press, was filed by attorneys general in more than a dozen states. Altogether, they accuse DeVos and the Department of Education of undercutting existing Title IX mandates, which bar sex-based discrimination in schools and colleges. The complaint also challenges DeVos’s mandate that the new rules be implemented by mid-August, saying the deadline is unreasonable given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Title IX’s mandate is simple: our schools must give women and men equal access to education, which means no one should experience sexual harassment,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. “But instead of making it easier for students to report, and for school to respond, to sexual harassment, Secretary DeVos has unlawfully narrowed Title IX’s reach.”

image of a legal gavel and books
Legal gavel and books; image courtesy of
succo via Pixabay,

DeVos’s guidance upends Obama-era policies governing how educational institutions deal with sexual harassment and assault complaints.

According to the Department of Education, the new rules seek to enhance due process by allowing people accused of sexual assault to question evidence and cross-examine their accusers.

“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,” DeVos said last month. “This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process.”

DeVos’s policy also narrows existing definitions of sexual harassment.

But the lawsuit says the department’s overhaul clashes not just with Title IX, but federal and state laws, and Supreme Court precedent, too. The attorneys general note, for instance, that DeVos’s guidance limits sexual harassment cases to those in which misconduct is “pervasive”—a sort of “[procedural] barrier” for schools, as well as an obstacle which may dissuade victimized students from speaking up in the first place.

“As a result, fewer sexual harassment complaints will be filed, and schools will be less well equipped to protect their students’ safety and rid their program and activities of the pernicious effects of sex discrimination,” the lawsuit states.

The attorneys general argued that DeVos’s timeframe for implementation—which has an August 14 deadline—is unreasonably short. To meet it, schools will have to “completely overhaul their systems for investigating and adjudicating complaints in less than three months, in the midst of a global pandemic that has depleted school resources.”

The Department of Education, however, pointed out that schools—struggling are not—are still receiving Title IX complaints even as most institutes have moved learning online.

“Civil rights are not on hold during this pandemic,” the department said in a statement. “To pretend otherwise is to let students down.”


DeVos finalizes regulations that give more rights to those accused of sexual assault on college campuses

DeVos’s Rules Bolster Rights of Students Accused of Sexual Misconduct

States sue to block DeVos’ campus sexual assault overhaul

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