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New Policies Proposed by Betsy DeVos Would Limit the Definition of Sexual Harassment on College Campuses

At a moment when several American universities are grappling with charges of sexual misconduct against prominent staff members, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is putting forth new rules that would strengthen the rights of students accused of sexual assault or harassment while making schools less accountable.

The new policies, first reported by the New York Times, would make schools liable only for formal complaints regarding conduct that occurred on their campuses.

The federal government has never before provided a specific definition of what constitutes sexual harassment on campuses and how schools should handle it. "The lack of clear regulatory standards has contributed to processes that have not been fair to all parties involved, that have lacked appropriate procedural protections and that have undermined confidence in the reliability of the outcomes of investigations of sexual harassment allegations," the draft rule says, according to the Times.

As Pacific Standard reported in July, the Department of Education opened 458 Title IX investigations in response to complaints from students between 2011 and 2017, and a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that those investigations don't harm enrollment at the institutions in question:

This research may seem like a defeat for activists looking to call attention to alleged wrongdoings on the universities' part, but it also offers a new incentive to college administrators primarily responsible for their institution's financial and legal solvency.... For "prestigious" universities, any sort of investigation isn't a learning experience, but a potential threat to its financial security.

The proposed policies could go into effect following a public comment period, without requiring a vote from Congress. If that happens, it will be up to individual schools to go above and beyond what the law requires.