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Education Secretary Proposes Enhanced Protections For Those Accused Of Sexual Assault On Campus


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is proposing sweeping changes to rules under Title IX. That's the 1972 law that bars sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Under DeVos' proposal, colleges and universities would face less liability when they investigate reports of sexual misconduct and assault. And a defendant would have stronger due process rights that include the ability to have an advocate cross-examine his or her accuser. Well, victims' rights activists are incensed. They warn a rollback in Obama-era rules is a rollback to the days of less accountability for schools, fewer protections for alleged victims and a decline in reporting of sexual abuse cases. But DeVos' plan also has vocal supporters. Among them are parents who argue their sons were wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct.

Families Advocating for Campus Equality, or FACE, has been advocating for more protections for the accused. Cynthia Garrett is co-president of FACE. I asked her why she took up this cause.

CYNTHIA GARRETT: I'm an attorney. And when I heard about this, I was appalled. I was being told that a student was going through this without being told about what he was accused of, not able to see the complaint, not allowed to contact witnesses, was never given copies of witness statements. Since that time, I've had a lot of personal experiences with - over a thousand students have come to us. The stories are often very much the same. They have a relationship. One breaks up. The other - sometimes, a year later - files a claim.

SINGH: In proposing a change to Title IX that would allow a defendant, for example, to cross-examine his or her accuser, we know that concerns have often been raised that this could retraumatize victims of sexual assault. Are you concerned about that at all?

GARRETT: I personally have never advocated for an accused or an accuser to directly cross-examine each other. And that's not what the regs provide for. They allow a student's advocate to question the opposing party.

SINGH: Does that not, still, retraumatize victims of sexual assault?

GARRETT: Well, you're assuming they're victims before they've been questioned. And, as you've probably heard, courts say cross-examination is the greatest legal engine ever created for determining the truth. The reason for that is when you hear somebody relay the story of another person, you think, OK, well, maybe. When that person sits in front of you and actually tells his or her own story, you can tell whether they're telling the truth most of the time. That's what Betty DeVos did with our students. She sat in a room. She listened to these students, mostly male, sobbing about what they had been through. So I think the idea is to allow someone to question each party in real time, in a live hearing, where their demeanor can be witnessed. That's all this is about.

SINGH: We know that the majority of sexual assault cases go unreported. So why is there a need to bolster the rights of the accused if, in fact, the majority of sexual assault cases still go unreported?

GARRETT: Are you saying that these procedures will inhibit students from coming forward?

SINGH: Some might say it is possible.

GARRETT: I suppose it's possible. I don't really know. But the schools don't put students in the position of grilling each other. So if a student has difficulty answering questions from an intermediary or, you know, an advocate, I don't know what the answer is because I - also, you have to look at the other side. Is it fair to expel somebody based on something that the accuser refuses to be questioned about? Is that fair, really?

And I think there's a whole lot of misinformation or disinformation about the repercussions of these findings. We get calls almost every day. We have students that have been through these processes found not responsible and, five years later, are still so traumatized, they can't go back to school. So this is not a game. This is a serious, serious mental trauma for people who are falsely accused.

SINGH: That was Cynthia Garrett. She's co-president of FACE, a group advocating for equal protections for those accused of sexual assault. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.