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OGDEN — When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced her intent to re-examine the federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination in education, she used examples to justify her decision.
Those examples included a male student who was dismissed for consensual “roughhousing” with his girlfriend, a rapist who went free after suing his school and one college student who was investigated for sexual harassment for an answer he gave on a quiz.
Weber State University Title IX Director Barry Gomberg said he feels DeVos “cherry-picked” those stories.
“I’m very content to go forward with the guidance the administration has provided for last eight years,” he said. “Tremendous good has come of that. I think institutions like Weber State pay close attention to the problems that Betsy DeVos tried to site through anecdotes.”
While Weber State won’t see any immediate impact from the DeVos announcement, Gomberg said at the very least it will continue to draw attention to the problem of sexual assaults in college.
“The point is there’s lots of input,” he said. “The public is invited to comment when regulations are promulgated. The more we discuss this issue, the greater degree of attention gets focused on the underlying problem.”
Title IX, passed in 1972, requires schools that receive federal funds not to discriminate on the basis of sex and deems sexual harassment to be a form of discrimination.
In 2015, Weber State’s Ogden campus saw four sexual assaults, six incidents of domestic violence and three incidents of dating violence on campus and in student housing, according to the 2015-16 campus security report.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says 63 percent of sexual assaults aren’t reported to police, citing 2002 data from a the U.S. Department of Justice, the Office of Justice Programs and Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In her live-streamed address at George Mason University Sept. 7, DeVos called campus sexual assault enforcement a “failed system.”
“Instead of working with schools on behalf of students, the prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students,” DeVos said.
In 2011 under Barack Obama’s presidency, the Office of Civil Rights sent the now well-known “Dear Colleague” letter to public universities detailing the ways in which they were expected to carry out Title IX, which meant preventing and addressing sexual assault.
DeVos firmly condemned sexual assault but said the Obama administration’s guidelines were too complicated and an overreach.
“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.”
Both Gomberg and Women’s Center Director Stephanie McClure said at Weber State, those accused of sexual assault are afforded the same rights as the accuser.
“We have to think about it as an opportunity,” McClure said. “This is a moment for populations, specifically those that are most effected by these issues ... to use their voice and to be a part of the democratic process.”
McClure said she has talked with students who are confused and concerned about DeVos’ announcement. She tells them Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter simply contained guidelines and even if it is eliminated, the 2013 Campus Save Act — a law — is still in place requiring sexual assault prevention and education.
“In the end what we really want students to know is with the Women’s Center and Safe@Weber, we’re really committed to using best practices in violence prevention and advocacy.”
After the speech, DeVos told CBS she was effectively rescinding Obama’s guidelines, but the process will take time. The reform, she said, will include a “transparent notice-and-comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties in developing a better way.”
“As the Women’s Center, we can’t be partisan but we still have the ability to let people know this open comment period is happening and let them particulate and use their voice,” McClure said.
While it’s unclear what DeVos’s reform will ultimately mean for Title IX, Gomberg said some conservatives have suggested turning the process over to the criminal justice system, which he feels is flawed and would slow the process considerably.
“As this is debated in the coming months, people will come to appreciate the tremendous benefits we’ve been able to accomplish by focusing more attention on sexual assault and engaging on more effective prevention processes,” Gomberg said.
Gomberg said if DeVos’s Title IX reform ultimately requires Weber State to change the burden of proof, they’ll have to consider doing so, but he thinks any such effort would be legally challenged by advocacy groups.
“There are far more examples of OCR guidance resulting in improvements than in the kinds of isolated examples she so carefully chose,” Gomberg said.
There are several resources available at Weber State to students who have experienced sexual harassment or assault including the Women’s Center, the university police department, university housing staff, the dean of students or Gomberg’s office.
McClure said all Weber State employees except for those at the women’s, health and counseling centers are “responsible employees,” which means if a student discloses a sexual assault or other violent act to them they must report it and the name of the student to the Title IX office.
The Women’s Center employees are “Campus Security Authorities,” which means they must report any disclosed incident to campus police but may leave out a student’s identifying information if they request.
Many responsible employees are also CSAs because they commonly interact with and have student oversight, which McClure said can be confusing. The university is coordinating marketing efforts to educate students of their rights and how to report assaults.
The Women’s Center is also hosting a “Know Your Rights” event at 3 p.m., Sept. 20 in the Shepard Union which will involve Title IX as well as the Clery Act, Title II and Title VI.
Contact education reporter Anna Burleson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnagatorB or like her on Facebook at Facebook.com/BurlesonReports.