DeVos announces reform of 'failed' campus sexual assault investigation system

ASU said it will remain committed to preventing discrimination on campus

On Thursday, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledged to change the way universities investigate sexual assault on campus, denouncing the current system as a “kangaroo court.”

DeVos didn’t say how the system will change during Thursday’s event at George Mason University, but said the department — which oversees the nation's public education — will begin seeking public input as it reforms the policies. 

“We will seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise, and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective, and fair system,” she said. 

ASU released a statement Thursday afternoon on the coming policy changes. 

"ASU will review the Department of Education recommendations when they are released," the statement read. "At no time will the university waiver in its commitment to maintaining a safe educational environment free of discrimination for all students."

DeVos emphasized that the current system is failing both sexual assault survivors and students who have been falsely accused. 

"Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined," she said. "Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved."

Public universities have reprioritized investigating sexual assault on campus since 2011, when a directive known as the “Dear Colleague" letter was sent to universities from the Obama Department of Education.

The directive said that the department would be re-interpreting Title IX — a  federal statute best known for creating equity in sports — in order to ensure investigations into sexual violence on college campuses were treated as priorities. 

Many universities, including ASU, now have a system of Title IX coordinators and investigators that adjudicates cases of sexual violence. 

These investigations are conducted separately but often concurrently with local police investigations. 

At ASU, student misconduct investigations are run by the Dean of Students Office and can result in suspension, expulsion or degree revocation, according to ASU policies

Unlike criminal cases where guilt is determined “beyond a reasonable doubt,” these student misconduct investigations use a “more-likely-to than-not” standard to determine wrongdoing, which a lower threshold than in criminal proceedings, according to the 2011 letter. 

DeVos also said that the department's Office for Civil Rights — which enforces civil rights in schools — hasn’t been working hard enough to serve students. 

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

The Office for Civil Rights ramped up its sexual violence investigations into universities after the 2011 letter. 

The Office for Civil Rights confirmed that it has three open investigations into ASU. One began in 2012 and the other two commenced in the fall of 2016.

Many of these investigations examine potential mishandling of cases by the University, but it is unclear what specific events led to the cases involving ASU. 

An Office for Civil Rights spokesperson said it has a policy of not commenting on ongoing investigations. The University also said it isn’t able to comment on ongoing investigations. 

ASU is one of 257 postsecondary institutions currently under investigation, according to Department of Education documents obtained by The State Press. It is the only public higher education institution in the state of Arizona with open investigations.

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