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Northwest Colleges Respond To Federal Shift In Sexual Assault Response


Portland State University and the University of Oregon had tuition increases rejected by the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Portland State University and the University of Oregon had tuition increases rejected by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

Northwest colleges learned Thursday that the Trump administration is abandoning the Obama-era approach to campus sexual assault.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos blasted college procedures as a “system run amok.”

“Here is what I’ve learned: the truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” said DeVos in remarks Thursday at George Mason University.

“Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved,” she continued.

DeVos rescinded guidance from 2011 that called on campuses to do more about sexual assaults.

The “Dear Colleague” letter from federal officials emphasized the duty of colleges to vigorously police sexual assaults on campus as an obligation under the federal gender parity mandate known as Title IX.

“If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” the letter told college administrators.

But DeVos said campuses reacted with “kangaroo courts” that don’t provide sufficient protections for both victims and alleged perpetrators.

The abandonment of the Obama-era approach and the suggestion that campuses have flawed conduct procedures was not welcomed on some college campuses. Oregon’s two largest universities responded by defending their processes.

Portland State University Associate Vice President Julie Caron listened to DeVos’ comments, and said they focused too much on extreme examples.

Caron noted that the Obama guidance had highlighted the enormous disparity between the number of sexual assault incidents reported in anonymous surveys and the how many are actually brought forward to authorities.

Caron worried that the wrong kind of change at the federal level could interfere with efforts to encourage victims to come forward.

“We can’t address conduct unless the barriers are broken down,” Caron said. “So, I think there is a fear that survivors won’t feel supported.”

Caron said she’s glad federal officials are asking for comment, rather than proposing a new policy. She said PSU’s process works well for victims and the accused, and should be allowed to continue. 

Oregon State University officials also responded to DeVos’ announcement by emphasizing the fairness of their procedures.

“Oregon State University’s Code of Student Conduct already emphasizes treating our students fairly, with due process, and it places the highest priority on safety and doing what is right,” said OSU Vice President Steve Clark.

Clark’s statement noted OSU’s emphasis on prevention and support, and their efforts to respond quickly to complaints.

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