New US school sexual assault rules enforce rights of accused

US education secretary Betsy DeVos (pictured March 2020) said that "too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault" (AFP Photo/JIM WATSON)

Washington (AFP) - The US Department of Education published new rules Wednesday which strengthen the rights of the accused in cases of sexual harassment or assault in schools and universities.

Under the changes, which were immediately slammed by victims groups, an accused person must be notified of the charges against him or her, may have recourse to a lawyer and has the right to a hearing to defend him or herself.

"Too many students have lost access to their education because their school inadequately responded when a student filed a complaint of sexual harassment or sexual assault," education secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement.

"This new regulation requires schools to act in meaningful ways to support survivors of sexual misconduct, without sacrificing important safeguards to ensure a fair and transparent process."

In 2011 and in 2014, after a rash of sexual harassment scandals in universities, the Obama administration provided schools with a series of recommendations for investigating the accusations.

Hailed by victims' advocacy groups, the rules were nevertheless criticized by some legal experts who pointed to a certain inequity between the accused and the accuser.

DeVos said the system had failed and dismantled it. In November 2018, she presented a new set of rules, the final edited version of which was published Wednesday.

The new regulations also lay out a method for cross-examining the accuser. This approach had previously been deemed too traumatizing for presumed victims.

Accusations concerning acts committed outside a school's campus are no longer admissible, unless it was committed in a building that belongs to the school or is managed by a student association.

Victims groups were swift to criticize the changes.

If the regulation goes into full effect in August as planned, then victims "will get the message loud and clear that there is no point in reporting assault," said Fatima Goss Graves, the president of the National Women's Law Center.

"We refuse to go back to the days when rape and harassment in schools were ignored and swept under the rug," she said, adding that they would appeal to the court system to block the new rules.

According to a study published in 2016, nearly a quarter of female students at US universities are subjected to undesired sexual acts, either under threat or by force, during their time at school.