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GUEST EDITORIAL: Don’t open door to sexual assault on campus

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Earlier this summer, a woman named Candice Jackson remarked to a New York Times reporter that she believed that 90 percent of accusations of sexual assault on campus were the result of a “we were both drunk” scenario. She later apologized at this appalling remark and said she was being flippant when she said it. But here’s the detail that readers ought not to miss: She continues to be employed as the head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division and thus is responsible for investigating such incidents.

That’s not a good sign. So it’s understandable that last week’s announcement by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that she intends to rewrite Obama administration era rules meant to force colleges and universities to take reports of sexual assault on campus more seriously than they had in the past brought out a great deal of trepidation from victim advocates, students and even many college administrators. The 2011 policy, which took the form of a letter of guidance instructing schools that federal funding would be at risk under Title IX if they didn’t take a tougher approach to sexual assaults, spurred many schools into action — not only in investigating incidents but in taking more preventive measures.

Johns Hopkins University, for example, subsequently revised its sexual misconduct policy and the process by which the school reviewed and resolved cases. It also led Hopkins to survey nearly 4,000 students on the topic. Its findings? One in seven respondents said they’d experienced unwanted sexual behavior while enrolled at the university. Just as troubling, the survey revealed that many victims were fearful of reporting assaults, worried perhaps that they would not be believed or taken seriously or that there would be a reprisal against them — and that was less than two years ago. What the survey did not uncover was a lot of Hopkins students describing how they had been falsely accused of sexual misconduct or punished unfairly for it.

Yet it is this last group that Secretary DeVos seems most intent on helping. We don’t doubt that, as with any investigation into misconduct, there are often two sides to the story. But for anyone to believe that the vast majority of sexual assaults reported on campus are baseless is outrageous, ignoring years of research on the subject that has found most incidents aren’t even reported, let alone prosecuted. DeVos didn’t go quite so far as to question the claims of 90 percent of survivors, as her civil rights head has done, but can this administration be trusted to stand up for the rights of women given how little interest it’s shown in those rights to date?

“One rape is too many. One assault is too many. One aggressive act of harassment is one too many,” DeVos said to a group at George Mason University. We agree completely, but is that philosophy guiding this particular rewrite, or is it something else? Tellingly, DeVos also told the audience federal involvement is “tipping the hand” of Lady Justice who is “not blind on campuses today.”

Attacking colleges and universities for protecting the most vulnerable people on campus, whether they be minorities, immigrants or victims of sexual misconduct, seems to be a major call in the conservative playbook these days. But what happened to all those “lock ’em up” conservatives who like to talk about mandatory sentencing and getting tough on offenders? This isn’t even about prison, it’s usually about getting kicked out of school or perhaps some adverse publicity. Studies from Boston to Australia estimate the false reports of rape are in the neighborhood of 2 percent to 10 percent. That’s a problem, of course, but let’s not lose sight of the 90-98 percent of incidents where it’s true.

The reality of college life is that it’s still dominated by gender discrimination and the “bro” culture. Just ask Baylor University where sexual assaults by football players were ignored by the school (although later prosecuted criminally). Sending such a wrong-headed message about sexual assault just as schools are making progress on their equal rights problem is an irresponsible and potentially dangerous step.