The Trump administration may change rules for how colleges handle sexual assault allegations involving students, raising concerns at Loyola that protections for victims could be rolled back.
President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, recently criticized Obama-era policies that told schools that receive federal funding, including Loyola, how to handle allegations of sexual misconduct. She argued they “failed” students by forcing schools to assume someone accused of sexual assault is guilty.
“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” DeVos said at an event at George Mason University on Sept. 7. “With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.”
Designed to protect sexual assault survivors, the policy directs schools to treat sexual harassment and assault as violations of Title IX, a 1972 law that prohibits discrimination based on sex. It directs schools to protect the alleged victim during investigation and to provide equal opportunity for both sides to present evidence and call witnesses.
Sexual assault on college campuses is pervasive, with nearly a quarter of female undergraduate students in the United States experiencing “rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation,” according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which tracks sexual violence. At Loyola, there were 76 reports of gender-based misconduct on campus during the fall 2016 semester, up from 49 the year before.
Although DeVos didn’t explain what specific changes will be made, the Department of Education is expected to undo at least some of the guidelines, which were issued in a 2011 letter that wasn’t legislated by Congress.
The Department of Education did not provide a comment for this story.
Loyola student Anna Neufelder founded the organization Challenging Antiquated Norms for Gender Equality (CHANGE), a sexual wellness advocacy group. She said some of the students in the group fear more sexual assaults could go unpunished if the guidelines are changed.
“It’s very scary, and it’s a very tough time to hear that, potentially, [victims’] rights could be taken away,” the junior psychology major said.
One key issue for the policy’s critics is the requirement that schools use a lower standard of evidence than is used in criminal cases.
A number of universities have been sued by students who say they were wrongly found to have committed sexual assaults on campus since the directive was announced.
In 2012, a student at Brandeis University near Boston sued his school after administrators there found him guilty of sexually assaulting his ex-boyfriend during their 21-month relationship. The federal judge who reviewed Brandeis’ procedures found the university denied the student the right to see evidence and call witnesses, unfairly stacking the deck against the accused.
“The accused was no longer informed of his or her ‘rights to fairness,’” the judge’s ruling read. “The accused had no right to confront or cross-examine the accuser, no right to call witnesses and no right to confront or cross-examine the accuser’s witnesses.”
While Neufelder said she understands why some oppose the policies, she argues many of their criticisms are overblown.
“Everyone does deserve a fair chance when the evidence is being considered,” Neufelder said. “Loyola in particular is very good at giving both parties an equal right to the process … so there’s actually not as much evidence as [DeVos] would like to think that there is inequality in the proceedings.”
Jessica Landis, Loyola’s assistant dean for student safety and equity and deputy Title IX coordinator, said the policy is intended to ensure a fair process for resolving accusations of sexual assault on college campuses.
“I think that was a response to the administration at the time hearing feedback from students across the nation asking for accountability from colleges and universities,” Landis said. “I can’t really speak for the lawmakers, but I think it’s important that every university and college takes a look at their policies and practices to make sure they’re fair.”
While DeVos didn’t say whether the policy would be revoked, revised or replaced, Landis said Loyola is prepared for whatever happens.
“We don’t know if this will be just a deregulation, meaning that the government will not be enforcing as strictly those guidelines, or if there will be changes in what those guidelines will be,” Landis said. “Right now we are confident in the process that we have in place, both that it’s compliant and that it does the right thing in terms of who we are as an institution.”
While some fear a rollback of protections for sexual assault victims, an Illinois law could ensure those protections remain in place at schools across the state. The Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act, which took effect in August 2016, contains many of the same guidelines as the Education Department’s policy, although it’s too early to say for certain whether a change in federal policy would override state law.
Loyola College Democrats President Jade Brown, a senior political science major, explained while she is concerned about the effects of such changes, a necessary conversation about sexual assault could arise.
“To be quite honest, I think [the proposed changes] would actually spark more discussion about [sexual assault],” Brown said. “We shouldn’t have to push for those rights to be honored and our rights to be defended in cases of sexual assault.”
Brown offered her insight on the best actions for Loyola’s administration to take, given the proposed changes become a reality.
“I obviously think that [administrators] should really push to protect victims,” Brown said. “I personally don’t think that our administration really treats this issue the way that I would like it treated.”
While Landis stressed Loyola’s sexual assault policies are in line with state and national law and work in accordance with Loyola’s Jesuit values, Brown expressed frustration with Loyola’s past handling of sexual assault.
Brown cited the example of former Loyola student Ben Holm, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for a rape he was convicted of committing in high school. She said she was mainly concerned with the fact that Loyola didn’t release a statement on Holm until 11 days after he pleaded guilty.
She also mentioned a sexual assault case reported in San Francisco Residence Hall last November, during which a crime alert was not emailed from Campus Safety to students.
However, Brown is hopeful DeVos’ proposal will “push our administration to do better, to do better for victims and to do better for the accused.”
Multiple members of Loyola College Republicans declined to comment for this story.