Students sound off on new federal regulations on campus sexual assault

Rutgers students reacted to proposed new federal regulations governing how schools should handle sexual assault and harassment complaints. The new Title IX federal rules, just unveiled by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and designed to replace an Obama-era policy, narrow the scope of cases schools must investigate and give the accused more rights.

“I think both sides should have the opportunity to speak,” said junior Kevin Kumar.

“I think it makes for a climate that is discouraging for victims to come out and speak about any sexual assault that they’ve experienced or harassment,” said sophomore Elaine Zheng.

Only 12 percent of campus sexual assaults are ever reported, according to a 2014 White House report. Jordan Meyers knows victims.

“It’s really scary what the outcome could be for them. They could be perceived as liars, you know, that they’re fabricating this,” Meyers said.

But allowing attorneys for the accused to cross-examine the accuser is one of the proposed new due-process rules, which also include presumption of innocence and opportunity to present witnesses. And the rules redefine harassment. Instead of the wider “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” from Obama-era guidelines, it’s now “ … unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.”

“People are wrongly accused and the lines are blurred between what is sexual assault and what is someone who made a mistake and doesn’t want to deal with it,” said senior Sarah Steinberg. “I think that there should be more cross-examinations going on. I think there should be more evidence.”

“The results of these hearings can have a profound and devastating impact on the lives of the accused,” said defense attorney Andrew Miltenberg.

Miltenberg has sat through hearings in more than 100 campus sex assault cases and says the process should protect due process because many colleges aren’t capable of full and fair investigations.

“These cases generally take the accuser’s words as 100 percent true. So you’re starting the process with a presumption of guilt against the accused and that’s not the principle on which our country was founded,” he said.

“We are looking at the proposed regulations to assess their impact, and will be joining with other institutions in providing comments after the conclusion of the review,” a Rutgers spokeswoman said.

Schools must be careful, because their federal funding depends on adhering to Title IX regulations.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Murphy said the rule overhaul “ … will undoubtedly discourage reporting of sexual misconduct and create barriers for those seeking justice,” and that Murphy “ … will stand against any regulations that suppress their voices.”

Victims advocates say the new rules and definitions would roll back protections so far.

“That in order to get protections, you’d actually have to have something serious happen to you. So it might cross the line from actual sexual harassment to some sort of violence,” said Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “We’re not talking about criminal justice proceedings. We’re talking about proceedings that affirm people’s right to an education and there just seems to be a lot of blurring around those boundaries.”

The DeVos rule changes will be subject to public comment. But once finalized, unlike the Obama policy they’d replace, the DeVos rules will carry the force of law.