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Betsy DeVos’s Change in Sexual Misconduct will not Affect PLNU—For Now

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked the Obama administration’s guidance on how campuses should handle cases of sexual misconduct on Friday with the goal of giving universities more freedom to handle cases as they see fit. However, PLNU’s policy will not be changing in light of the recent shift, at least for now, according to Caye Smith, Vice President for Student Development and Title IX Coordinator.

The U.S. Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights released a “Dear Colleague” letter outlining the reasons for the change in sexual misconduct policy, mainly discussing the perceived shortcomings of the 2011 letter and 2014 guidance released by the Obama administration.

“The Department imposed these regulatory burdens without affording notice and the opportunity for public comment,” the Dear Colleague letter said. “The Department has decided to withdraw the guidance documents in order to develop an approach to student sexual misconduct that responds to the concerns of stakeholders.”

According to Smith, the Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights will create a new set of guidelines that will then be open to public comment for 180 days before a final version is created and implemented. Therefore, PLNU will be making no changes to their sexual misconduct policy for the time being. The current policy is based on the changes made by the Obama administration in 2011 and 2014.

“We will continue to take sexual misconduct very seriously, as we always have. It will give us a little more flexibility for how we conduct an investigation when something’s brought to us.” Smith said. “If both parties agree, we can do a negotiated mediation kind of settlement instead of a full-blown investigation. We have that liberty now.”

According to Smith, it is unlikely that the new policies will be made public this year, so it will be awhile before PLNU has to change anything, and it will not shift the level of importance this issue has for the school.

“Nothing’s changed… we took it seriously before 2011, we took it seriously after 2011, we take it seriously in 2017. Now we just have a little more flexibility in terms of investigating and responding to both parties,” Smith said.

Part of the recent “Dear Colleague” letter was in response to schools that have accused the old policies of lacking fairness or creating too low a standard of evidence, as opposed to a “higher clear-and-convincing standard.” The letter cited one such complaint from 28 members of the Harvard Law School Facility, who claimed that the old letter “[lacked] the most basic elements of fairness and due process and [was] overly stacked against the accused.”

“I think the new letter is trying to emphasize fairness for the responding party, for someone who may be accused. It’s important all our processes be fair. We continue to not only do everything in our power to prevent sexual assault from happening, but we take the climate around sexual assault very seriously. I don’t see a need to loosen the expectations,” said Jake Gilbertson, PLNU’s Director of Community Life and Title IX Investigator.

According to Gilbertson, in incidences of sexual assault, students often fear coming forward when alcohol is involved, due to PLNU policies surrounding that issue. However, immunity is offered for students reporting sexual misconduct.

“We have really good policies in place to care for students if they feel like something like this has happened. We want to support any student that’s been through this,” Gilbertson said.

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Marlee Drake

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