DeVos's Right Call on Sexual Assault

(Bloomberg View) -- Given the man she works for, it was inevitable that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would face some skepticism when she announced a new approach to the issue of sexual misconduct on college campuses. But she is right to make the change -- and President Donald Trump's boasts of sexual assault, and the line of women who have accused him of harassment, make it all the more important that she succeed in making the system fairer for all students.

DeVos got off to a good start with her commitment to officially seek public input in this process -- something her predecessor did not. In 2011, the department sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to colleges and universities offering "guidance" on how to set sexual assault policies, which included an endorsement of the lowest standard of guilt: a "preponderance of the evidence," or greater than 50 percent certainty. At the same time, the department said a school's failure to follow its guidance risked federal investigations and loss of funds.

Schools overreacted in ways that have disregarded basic due-process rights and made a mockery of justice. A recent survey of 53 top colleges found that most do not provide accused students with an explicit presumption of innocence. Some do not even notify students who stand accused in writing. In many cases, these due-process procedures offer less protection than those established for other types of student misconduct.

Universities, of course, tend to act in their own interest -- and they are interested in avoiding federal investigations or the loss of federal funds. Yet softening or removing those threats will not solve the underlying problem: Schools are spectacularly unsuited for adjudicating potential criminal behavior.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex. Over time, the Education Department and the courts began viewing it as a bulwark against sexual assault. In response, universities have created quasi-judicial bureaucracies that routinely offend basic principles of justice.

Universities have an important role to play in protecting against sexual assault. But expecting administrators to function as judge and jury -- and allowing them to serve as defense attorney and prosecutor, too -- is bound to produce more abuse than justice.

There are good reasons that victims of sexual assault are reluctant to go to the police, including an understandable desire to remain anonymous. But the best way to crack down on these crimes, and provide real measures of justice to victims, is to make it easier for victims to come forward, avail themselves of the legal system, and receive the support and services they need and deserve.

In her speech, DeVos noted a proposal to create regional centers to handle sexual assault cases, through partnerships between universities and law enforcement agencies. The centers could operate either as nonprofits or, better, arms of local or state prosecutors. The more that DeVos can move the system under the umbrella of the justice system, the better off all students will be.

--Editors: Francis Barry, Michael Newman.

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