SALT LAKE CITY — Local advocates for survivors of sexual assault say college students will be less likely to report attacks in the wake of an address by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday.
Speaking at George Mason University School of Law in Fairfax, Virginia, DeVos vowed to replace an Obama administration system of campus assault enforcement that she says is broken for both survivors of sexual assault and those wrongly accused, and "fails all students."
Too often the conversation has been framed as "a contest between men and women," or the rights of sexual misconduct survivors and the due process rights of accused students, she said.
"The reality is, however, a different picture. There are men and women, boys and girls, who are survivors, and there are men and women, boys and girls, who are wrongfully accused," DeVos said.
"I've met them personally. I've heard their stories. And the rights of one person can never be paramount to the rights of another."
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who has successfully carried a number of bills on various aspects of sexual assault through the Utah Legislature in recent years, described DeVos' address as "troubling."
"I'm afraid that victims won't report because they'll feel like people won't believe them," Romero said. "There's a reason why we've been heading toward this victim-centric approach to where we give the power back to the victim of sexual assault, and I think we're taking steps back.
"At the end of the day, rape is rape and sexual assault is sexual assault. As we know, only 2 to 10 percent are false accusations," she said.
The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault said in a prepared statement that DeVos' announcement "tips the scales of justice away from survivors of sexual violence."
DeVos' address "shows willful disregard for the needs, concerns and experiences of survivors of sexual violence. … We condemn any effort to undermine the robust process of accountability established by the Dear Colleague letter," the statement said.
Turner C. Bitton, the coalition's executive director, said the organization is committed to working with the Utah Legislature, local partners and stakeholders to ensure that institutions "continue to adhere to the spirit and letter of the Dear Colleague letter."
The Dear Colleague letter, issued in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Education, urged colleges to better investigate and adjudicate cases of campus sexual assault, and clarified how the Education Department interprets Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Although DeVos did not refer to the 2011 letter specifically, she said the prior administration had "weaponized the Office of Civil Rights" to work against schools and against students.
"The era of 'rule by letter' is over. Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach. 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," DeVos said.
"Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined. These are non-negotiable principles."
Stephany Murguia, outreach and access coordinator for the Rape Recovery Center, reiterated the organization's support of survivors of sexual assault, "and strongly encourages campus policies that are trauma-informed, support survivors' rights and create accountability and transparency in their processes."
Officials at the state's largest universities say they remain committed to creating safe spaces for students and ensuring that due processes rights are protected.
While Secretary DeVos announced the start of a comment period that could lead to policy changes, she issued no immediate directives.
"It's kind of too soon to tell what is going to happen, but I encourage people to participate in that process," said Sherrie Hayashi, director of the University of Utah's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and its Title IX coordinator.
"When they come up with the proposed regulations, it will be incumbent on everybody to participate in that comment period," Hayashi said. "Unless people speak up and raise their voices and raise their concerns, things could be more difficult for individuals who historically have been afraid to come forward and report."
Brigham Young University plans no changes in policy or practice as a result of DeVos' address, said Tiffany Turley, the university's Title IX coordinator.
"We felt confident with all the changes we've made over the past year and the direction that we're going that what we're doing simultaneously can provide support and effective services for victims but also provide a fair and equitable process for those who have been accused and are respondent," Turley said.
"Everything that we're doing and everything we're going to continue to do is for our students' well-being," she said, "and at this point, nothing in our process will change — at least any more than it has over the past year we've been making some big other systemic changes."
Eric Warren, spokesman for Utah State University, said student safety is paramount at USU.
"USU agrees that it is imperative to protect every student's right to learn in a safe environment and to prevent unjust deprivations of that right. We will wait to learn more about how Secretary DeVos’ statement develops into new rules and guidance for how Title IX is implemented on university campuses," Warren said.
Meanwhile, USU will continue to work on preventing sexual assault and improve its response to allegations on campus, he said.
"Our Title IX process places great emphasis on supporting victims of sexual assault and protecting the due process rights of all involved," Warren said.
Earlier this year, the University of Utah announced it was committing more than $380,000 to enhance student safety, including a new requirement that all students take an online sexual assault prevention course before enrolling in classes.
The university's plan also includes hiring additional staff in the Dean of Students Office and a one-year awareness campaign to promote the launch of a new campus safety website.
"I think we've done a lot on our campus to try to make it a safe space for people," Hayashi said. "We have our victim advocates office; we've added a new person. We wouldn't want anything to be able to detract from that ability to come forward and have university's support and address these types of issues.
"We've always been cognizant of due process and making sure that due process rights of both parties are given the highest priority while balancing that out against safety and making sure we're addressing these types of issues appropriately."
Education is key, said Warren.
"A key piece of this work is educating students about these important matters. For example, this week is Sex + Respect Week at USU, which is an educational week on healthy relationships, communicating consent, safer sex and preventing sexual assault," he said.