Guest opinion: Campus sexual assault policies need revision

The Orange County Register
Guest Editorial


Rape is a serious crime, but too often federal policies have forced colleges to dodge basic legal protections for the accused.

Like many overzealous state interventions, the federal government’s actions were well intentioned. Sexual assault is certainly a grave problem, particularly in college environments, where many still-immature young people, newly unshackled from parental supervision, have easy access to drugs, alcohol and encounters with the opposite sex. But the government, and universities under its direction, have gone too far, and, as a result, threatened and violated the rights of the innocent.

In an April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, the Education Department notified colleges, under the threat of the loss of federal funding, that they must aggressively investigate allegations of sexual assault to avoid violating Title IX rules against gender discrimination. Moreover, it deemed that the “clear and convincing” standard of proof should be downgraded to the mere “preponderance of the evidence” standard used for civil — not criminal — cases.

This prompted numerous schools to adopt policies that have resulted in many falsely charged students being found guilty, being expelled from school and having their reputations unjustly ruined. A recent report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that 74 percent of the 53 top American universities examined do not guarantee that accused students are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and less than half (47 percent) require that tribunals be impartial.

Just this year, for example, University of Southern California student and football player Matt Boermeester was expelled based on the complaint of a neighbor, despite the fact that both the accused and his girlfriend stated that they were merely roughhousing in the front yard.

“When I told the truth about Matt, in repeated interrogations, I was stereotyped and was told I must be a ‘battered’ woman, and that made me feel demeaned and absurdly profiled,” the girlfriend, recent USC graduate Zoe Katz, said.

Sometimes these rules turn the notion of victimhood on its head. In 2015, a male student at Amherst College was expelled for sexual assault after his girlfriend’s roommate performed oral sex on him while he was blacked out drunk.

It is welcome news, then, that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has announced that these policies will be subject to public comment and revised.

“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” DeVos said at a speech at George Mason University last week. “Due process is the foundation of any system of justice that seeks a fair outcome. Due process either protects everyone, or it protects no one. The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the ‘victim’ only creates more victims.”

The current system not only violates the rights and educational opportunities of innocent students wrongfully accused, it also cheapens the plight of legitimate rape victims. There is no reason we should have to choose between protecting victims of sexual assault and contravening the rights of the accused through an unfair process. Sexual assault is a serious crime. It should be dealt with by police and the legal system, not a kangaroo hearing operated by college administrators.

— The Orange County Register, Sept. 14