In this Sept. 17, 2018 photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a student town hall at National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. DeVos has announced a major overhaul to the way colleges handle complaints of sexual misconduct. 

A new rule released Wednesday by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that outlines how schools must handle allegations of sexual assault and harassment has come under fire by women’s advocates.

Critics say the directive, which falls under the federal civil rights law known as Title IX, reverses the progress schools have made to protect victims on the heels of the #MeToo movement, which inspired previously silent victims to speak out against their abusers.

DeVos and her supporters, meanwhile, say the new rule, initially proposed in 2018, strengthens fairness and due process for both victims and the accused.

Title IX coordinators at Lancaster County colleges told LNP | LancasterOnline the new regulations will result in sweeping changes to their policies, but they intend to lawfully update them by Aug. 14, the deadline set by the federal government.

Campuses ‘less safe’

Jennifer Burke, an assistant professor of education and the chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women at Millersville University, said the new rule may silence victims in favor of protecting the accused.

Victims of sexual assault, she said, often feel a sense of shame and embarrassment. Adding a live hearing and cross-examination might prevent them from coming forward.

“It really has the potential to make campuses less safe places,” she said.

To introduce the new rule during a pandemic, Burke added, was “truly appalling.”

But DeVos, in a statement, pointed at the new regulation as a way to support students who had lost access to education because of a school’s inadequate response to a student complaint of sexual harrassment or sexual assault.

DeVos said the new regulation requires schools to act in “meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process.”

Most notably, the rule prohibits universities from using a single official to investigate and judge complaints, and instead requires them to hold a live hearing in which representatives of the accused can challenge evidence and cross-examine the victim.

It defines sexual harassment to include sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking, but requires it to be severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.

Susan J. Frietsche, senior staff attorney at Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, said Devos’ new rule derails the efforts schools are making to respond better to complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

“This new regulation undoes much of that hard work, throws schools into confusion in the midst of a pandemic, and turns back the clock on the progress schools have struggled so hard to make,” Frietsche said.

The document DeVos released Wednesday is 2,033 pages.

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