Campus Rape Policies

WASHINGTON — The letters have come in to her office by the hundreds, heartfelt missives from college students, mostly men, who had been accused of rape or sexual assault. Some had lost scholarships. Some had been expelled. A mother stumbled upon her son trying to take his own life, recalled Candice E. Jackson, the top civil rights official at the Department of Education.

“Listening to her talk about walking in and finding him in the middle of trying to kill himself because his life and his future were gone, and he was forever branded a rapist — that’s haunting,” said Ms. Jackson, describing a meeting with the mother of a young man who had been accused of sexual assault three months after his first sexual encounter.

The young man, who maintained he was innocent, had hoped to become a doctor.

In recent years, on campus after campus, from the University of Virginia to Columbia University, from Duke to Stanford, higher education has been roiled by high-profile cases of sexual assault accusations. Now Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is stepping into that maelstrom. On Thursday, she will meet in private with women who say they were assaulted, accused students and their families, advocates for both sides and higher education officials, the first step in a contentious effort to re-examine policies of President Barack Obama, who made expansive use of his powers to investigate the way universities and colleges handle sexual violence.

How university and college administrations have dealt with campus sexual misconduct charges has become one of the most volatile issues in higher education, with many women saying higher education leaders have not taken their trauma seriously. But the Obama administration’s response sparked a backlash, not just from the accused and their families but from well-regarded law school professors who say new rules went too far.

In an interview previewing her plans, Ms. Jackson, who heads the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and organized Thursday’s sessions, made clear that she believes investigations under the 1972 law known as Title IX have gone deeply awry. A sexual assault survivor herself, she said she sees “a red flag that something’s not quite right” — and that the rights of accused students have too often been ignored

Hundreds of cases are still pending, some for years, she said, because investigators were “specifically told to keep looking until you find the violation” on college campuses even after they found none — a charge her critics strongly deny.

As of Monday, the office had 496 open sexual assault cases, and the average length of a case is 703 days, according to the department. The longest pending higher education cases, against the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Arizona State University, have been open for more than five years. The office is required to complete 80 percent of its investigations within 180 days.

Candice Jackson, center, the top civil rights official at the Department of Education, in October 2016. Ms. Jackson believes that the rights of students accused of sexual assault have too often been ignored. Credit Evan Vucci/Associated Press

In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Jackson said that “90 percent” of sexual assault accusations on campus “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

Ms. Jackson later apologized, called her remarks “flippant” and said they were based on feedback from accused students. That did not mollify victims of sexual assault and their supporters, who staged a protest outside the Education Department headquarters Thursday morning.

Candice Jackson, who leads the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, last year. She recently apologized for comments about the origin of sexual assault at college campuses. Credit Evan Vucci/Associated Press

“Unfortunately those remarks are now out there, and at the highest levels they need to undo that damage by countering those myths about rape,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, which helped organize the demonstration.

Referring to Ms. DeVos, she said: “She has to reject the idea that rape is just regretted sex. She has to reject the idea that most women lie, and she has to say it and say it and say it again.”

One major issue before Ms. DeVos is whether to rescind a letter issued in 2011 by the Obama administration that urged colleges and universities to take a tough stance on rape on campus or risk losing federal funding. Another question is whether her department will instruct schools to change the standard of evidence used to determine whether students are responsible for sexual assault. The Obama administration asked colleges to adopt a “preponderance of evidence” standard, a lower bar than the “clear and convincing evidence” threshold that many schools had been using. Some accused students have protested that the lower standard turned nebulous cases into grounds for discipline or suspension