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New rules finalized for handling sexual harassment and assault allegations at schools

The changes are set to go into effect in August

Photo (c) sshepard - Getty Images
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Wednesday that people accused of assault and harassment at schools will be given new protections. 

Critics argue that the changes may discourage victims from reporting the person who assaulted them, but DeVos said the Department is trying to institute a policy that is fair to all those involved. The new rules allow parties accused of harassment or assault to question evidence and cross-examine their accusers during live hearings. 

"Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault," DeVos said in a statement Wednesday. "This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process."

The new rules represent a change to a law known as Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination (including sexual assault) on college campuses and schools.

Changes the definition of sexual misconduct

Under the revision to Obama-era guidance, “sexual harassment” on school grounds will be defined as “sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking." The previous iteration of the guidance was less narrow and described sexual harassment as "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature."

The details of the changes, which are slated to go into effect August 14, were outlined in a 2,000 page document. The changes will require schools to investigate the allegations in any formal complaint but dismiss any allegations of conduct that doesn’t fit the new definition. 

Cross-examinations will be required but will be carried out by an “adviser” rather than students. Either party can request that the hearing be held virtually, and the opposing party can be in a separate room while the hearing takes place.

Critics argue rules could silence victims

While critics argue the changes could stifle victims, proponents of the new rules contend that they will help ensure that schools and colleges take sexual harassment seriously.

"It marks the end of the false dichotomy of either protecting survivors, while ignoring due process, or protecting the accused, while disregarding sexual misconduct," Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary of the department's Office for Civil Right said in a statement. "There is no reason why educators cannot protect all of their students -- and under this regulation there will be no excuses for failing to do so."

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center, said the new regulation could be extremely harmful to those who suffered sexual harassment or assault. 

“If this rule goes into effect, survivors will be denied their civil rights and will get the message loud and clear that there is no point in reporting assault,” Graves said. 

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