Betsy DeVos, the controversial United States Education Secretary, drummed up further debate when announcing her changes to Obama-era campus sexual assault procedures. The proposed changes include encouraging mediation between the accuser and the accused, strict guidelines concerning how assaults are reported and less severe consequences for universities when cases are mishandled.
Even with the Obama-era standards, not many sexual assault investigations are launched. Universities formally investigate an average of only 1.18 allegations a year despite statistics suggesting that 23.1 percent of female and 5.4 percent of male undergraduate students experience “rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation,” according to the Rape, Assault and Incest National Network.
Colleges have proven they are neither willing nor equipped to properly handle matters of sexual assault, often preferring to protect reputations over students. UMBC is no different, as evidenced by the allegations now coming to light in a scathing federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the investigations into rape allegations made by the two lead plaintiffs in the case were intentionally mishandled.
UMBC Police Chief Paul Dillon is alleged to have encouraged one of the plaintiffs, a former UMBC student, not to bring rape allegations to the police and instead handle it administratively. Additionally, the plaintiff submitted to a rape kit, which revealed evidence of her sexual assault while drugged, but the kit was “discarded,” and the case was not examined further. The incident was input into university records merely as a “suspicious condition.”
Baltimore County’s State Attorney, Scott Shellenberger, allegedly sent the police to the home of another victim, the second plaintiff and a Towson University student, who reported that she was raped by members of UMBC’s baseball team. Detectives threatened her with legal action if she persisted to press charges.
These and other ways in which cases have been mishandled make it clear that schools need to be held more accountable when sexual assault is reported. Although maintaining due process is important, Devos’ changes are inappropriate for both parties. The proposed informal resolutions through mutually agreed upon mediation sessions have the potential to create longer-lasting trauma for the victim.
Title IX is a tool for activists to advocate against sexual assault on campuses. Jess Myers, the director of the Women’s Center at UMBC, worked on a research team interviewing those activists across the U.S. She stated that, “All the [Title IX] changes up until now [were not] perfect but I also do not think the direction the current administration [of the U.S. government] is taking around Title IX regulations is the solution either.”
Myers suggests that everyone should remain informed about the new policies and that an important step is, “participating in the Notice and Comment process … [and] leaving your comment about the proposed regulations once the process is open.” Through Notice and Comment, the public can find policy documents by searching the Federal Register (www.federalregister.gov) and submit formal comments on the policies. The process is a valuable asset for anyone who wants their voice heard.
Universities across the country have shown that they are not able to handle sexual assault allegations. Schools should offer more support for victims and take accusations seriously through encouraging people to go to the authorities instead of attempting to solve the issue in-house. If this procedure was followed instead of destroying rape kits, then perhaps the perpetrators of these crimes would be imprisoned and the victims would not have to sue UMBC for failing to do what was required.