Education Secretary Betsy DeVos isn't the easiest person in Washington to agree with. Her policies tend to be based on the very limited experience of an ultra-rich person whose protected existence insulates her from the realities of the educational systems she oversees.
But DeVos, who visited Missouri on Friday, is squarely on target with her questioning of the way universities adjudicate campus sexual abuse. The on-campus disciplinary process is a ridiculous way to investigate and mete out punishment in cases as serious as rape. DeVos is calling for a much-needed overhaul.
The result should be a revision of Title IX, the federal law that outlines procedures to address sexual discrimination on campus. Universities for decades have misinterpreted Title IX to mean that they must offer on-campus adjudication when a student accuses another student or university employee of sexual misconduct.
They have steered serious rape cases to student-faculty disciplinary panels, which are not even remotely qualified to receive and analyze evidence, interview witnesses, inspect the alleged crime scene and establish guilt or innocence. As DeVos noted in a Sept. 7 speech, on-campus adjudication denies due process to the accused and too often impedes justice.
"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," DeVos said. "That's why we must do better, because the current approach isn't working. Washington has burdened schools with increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines that even lawyers find difficult to understand and navigate."
It's been all too convenient in the past for universities to encourage alleged rape victims to keep their complaints quiet and allow a disciplinary panel to resolve the matter. Seemingly sympathetic counselors will warn victims about the invasiveness of a police investigation and the likelihood that the victim's past sexual history would be brought up in a court proceeding.
Universities have a vested interest in keeping the matter in-house. They can more easily find ways to evade the crime reporting requirements that make sexual assault statistics available to parents, donors and prospective students.
It's no secret that alcohol flows abundantly in campus environments, very often resulting in sexual encounters that probably wouldn't occur in more sober settings. Regardless, rapists deserve to be brought to justice. Failing to properly prosecute them results in the re-violation of the victim.
At the same time, all defendants have rights that must be protected, starting with a presumption of innocence. A disciplinary panel's finding of guilt, when merely a "preponderance" of evidence exists against the defendant, can deal a harsh injustice to an innocent person.
University disciplinary panels consist of amateurs who have no business delving into matters of serious criminality. DeVos deserves credit for saying it's time to hit the reset button.
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