Betsy DeVos: Obama-era sexual assault initiative 'creates more victims'

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
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Today, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed invited guests at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, about sexual assault on college campuses.

"The previous administration helped elevate this issue," she said. "I am grateful to those who endeavored to end sexual assault on college campuses, but good intentions alone are not enough."

"Instead of working with schools on behalf of students," she said, "the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students."

The secretary claimed that the Obama-era sexual assault policy failed "hundreds upon hundreds" of sexual assault survivors and "dozens upon dozens" of students falsely accused of sexual misconduct because it limited due process for those accused, was confusing and lowered standards for sexual assault.

Under the Obama Administration policy, colleges were required to address sexual assault and sexual misconduct accusations based on a preponderance of evidence in order to receive federal funding. "Washington dictated that schools must use the lowest standard of truth," she said.

This policy, she argued, infringes upon the rights of those who are accused of sexual assault and makes things confusing for survivors. "The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve 'victims' only creates more victims," said DeVos. "Guilt is not predetermined."

President-elect Donald Trump stands with Betsy DeVos after a meeting at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.
Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Another critique of the policy was that it allowed for "broad definitions of assault and harassment" including cases of speech protected by the First Amendment. "Any perceived offense," said DeVos, "can become a full-blown Title IX investigation."

She argued that this speech-related guidance "trivializes actual harassment," and "teaches students the wrong lessons about freedom of speech." DeVos referred to cases in which students and teachers were falsely accused of sexual harassment "simply for speaking their minds or teaching classes."

"If everything is harassment," she said, "then nothing is."

While DeVos said that she plans to replace the current approach, she did not offer a definite alternative. She suggested sexual assault survivors work with medical professionals, counselors and clergy. She also indicated that the Department of Education is considering proposals put forth by the Bar Association and Harvard Law Faculty among others.

"This is not about letting institutions off the hook," DeVos assured the crowd. "They still have important work to do."

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