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Changes to Sexual Assault and Harassment Allegations from Betsy DeVos Primed to Give Greater Protections to Accused Students

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The United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is expected to release updates to university and college policies regarding sexual assault and harassment cases. These changes will give additional rights to people accused of sexual assault and harassment, including giving them the power to cross-examine the person accusing them according to the Washington Post.

Officials expect these changes, which will replace the guidance issued in 2011 by the Obama administration to be officially released before Thanksgiving. Under these new rules, schools will be allowed to use stricter standards when evaluating claims of sexual assault and harassment, create a narrower definition of what constitutes as sexual harassment, and limit the liability of universities.

These changes come one year after DeVos rescinded the Obama administration guidance, saying that it lacked due process for people accused of sexual assault and harassment and was overly prescriptive. In a speech that year, she spoke about students who were wrongly accused, and also said that the rules did not adequately serve survivors who could be forced to go through a number of appeals.

“Schools have been compelled by Washington to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment,” she said. “Institutions must be mindful of the rights of every student.”

One major change, according to sources to the Washington Post familiar with the matter updates the definition of sexual harassment from,

“unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.”

Schools will also no longer be held legally responsible for its failure to investigate a complaint, updating the language from “reasonably should” be aware of the incident to having “actual knowledge” that it occurred. This means that students who report allegations to a resident advisor or professor do not meet these new criteria – it must be reported to an official with the authority to “institute corrective measures.”

In addition, these potential changes come in the wake of rising pressure for schools to better handle sexual assault and harassment cases, they are not expected to deal with the rights of transgender students. However, the Education Department could issue a fact sheet or letter asserting that sex discrimination doesn’t include gender identity-related complaints in the future, according to the Washington Post.

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