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Education Department Official Apologizes For 'Flippant' Campus Sexual Assault Comments


The top civil rights enforcer at the Education Department apologized yesterday for remarks about campus sexual assault that she now says were flippant. Candice Jackson had told The New York Times that, quote, "90 percent of sexual assault cases fall into the category of, we were both drunk or are brought by unhappy ex-girlfriends". Those comments come at a time when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seems to be changing the way her department deals with claims of sexual assault - listening to those who are accused as well as to victims.

For more, we turn to Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team, who's been following the story. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: First tell us more about Candice Jackson, the woman who made these comments yesterday.

KAMENETZ: Well, she's a Trump and a DeVos appointee, and she made her name as a Trump loyalist. You may remember during the second presidential debate when all those women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct showed up at the debate. It was Candice Jackson, actually, who helped arrange that. She's the author of a book that went into the stories of many of Clinton's accusers. In her life before that, she was a Stanford and a Pepperdine Law graduate. She was a prominent campus libertarian and conservative. And she's also made it known that she's a sexual assault survivor as well.

SHAPIRO: The Department of Education where she works is not a law enforcement agency. And so explain what this department's role is when it comes to campus sexual assault.

KAMENETZ: So Jackson heads the Ed Department's civil rights division. And the reason that there is a civil rights division in the Ed Department is because equality of access to education is considered such an important component of civil rights. You think of Brown versus Board of Ed. And the Obama administration took a pretty forceful position, in particular that campus sexual violence falls under Title IV, under federal law that guarantees equal access to education regardless of sex. And this kind of came amid an atmosphere of high profile and damaging cases that often involve campus athletes like Stanford, Baylor University, Florida State, Vanderbilt. The list goes on.

And so what we saw under the Obama administration was guidance issued to colleges that they would have to take a stronger role in investigating these cases. And at the department - at the Office of Civil Rights (ph), we saw many, many new cases being opened. There are now about 500 open cases of campus sexual assaults that they're investigating. And they're remaining open often for years.

SHAPIRO: And explain what the Education Department is going to do differently under Secretary DeVos than what we've seen in the last few years.

KAMENETZ: Well, Jackson authored an internal memo that was obtained by ProPublica and said basically that what came before is a case of overreach and that they're going to dial it down. So they're focusing on clearing up case backlogs, loosening the investigative guidance and also pushing for cuts in staffing to her own office.

And then the other part of it is how this department is going to be using its bully pulpit. Instead of just amplifying the claims of victims or accusers, DeVos is meeting today with so-called men's rights groups. And these are groups such as the National Coalition for Men and Families Advocating for Campus Equality that kind of take the position that that rape accusations are overblown; they're exaggerated, that this is political correctness run amok.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the recent history that you've described, are we just seeing a pendulum that had swung in one direction now swinging back in the other?

KAMENETZ: You know, Ari, I think victims advocates would say that until campus sexual violence becomes a rare occurrence, that you don't really have a pendulum problem. But at the same time, everybody remembers cases like the UVA Rolling Stone situation, the Duke lacrosse scandal where there were in fact inaccurate or false accusations. So the question here is whether there can be an approach to enforcement that treats both the victims and the accused with seriousness and dignity and tries to get to the bottom of these kinds of allegations.

SHAPIRO: That's Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team. Thanks a lot.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.