Sec. of Education blasts university sex assault hearings as ‘kangaroo courts’

Students walking on UT campus (KXAN Photo)
Students walking on UT campus (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thursday the US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos compared university administrative hearings on sexual misconduct to “kangaroo courts.”

In a wide ranging speech, she criticized the current process of investigating sexual assault allegations within individual universities and lays the blame on an Obama-era memo on Title IX.

She said keeping the process within a university leads to too much injustice for victims of sexual assault and people who’ve been falsely accused.

“No student should be forced to sue their way to due process,” said DeVos.

Austin defense attorney Brian Roark has defended more than a dozen students accused of sexual misconduct. He says many times they did not commit the crime but were found in violation of a universities’ rule through the administration process.

It leads to “kicking otherwise innocent kids out of school as a wake up call for mistakes we’ve made in the past I don’t think is fair,” he said.

The landscape changed in 2011 when the Obama Administration sent a letter laying out guidelines that tied the process to federal funding. In Roark’s view, tying funding to results of the process encouraged schools to go overboard.

“If they find you in violation, branding you as a rapist, it goes on your transcript. So it potentially prevents you from getting into any other school and it also kicks you out of school,” said Roark.

Survivors and victims advocates are extremely skeptical of changes from the Trump administration.

“If we do see this rollback of Title IX I can tell you that instances of reporting are going to go down which means instances of assault are going to go up because perpetrators will know that they won’t be accountable for their actions,” said Alicia Weigel from Deeds Not Words, a gender equality advocacy group founded by former Texas Senator Wendy Davis.

She worries about taking the process out of the university system because rape victims might not feel comfortable going to law enforcement.

“They’re so nervous about having to enter the criminal justice system rather than speaking to people that they know and trust, perhaps campus officials,” said Weigel.

Details of changes are yet to be seen. Secretary DeVos says it will be a long and thorough process. A University of Texas spokesperson tells KXAN they take the issue of campus sexual assault very serious and will always comply with new federal policies or law.

State Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, tells KXAN she read the Obama-era letter and thought it was fair and supports universities setting up a system to deal with sexual assault allegations. She believes UT-Austin, which is in her district, is handling the problem well.

She supports tying funding to the process to ensure accountability.

“It’s been in response to some very recent problems that we’ve had in Texas in our universities,” said Rep. Hinojosa.

In response to a scandal at Baylor University, Gov. Greg Abbott signed two bills into law aimed at battling sexual assaults on college campuses. Senate Bill 968 lets students and employees report sexual assaults to universities online and remain anonymous while doing so.

A second bill protects students who reports a sexual assault, if they were violating a law at the time they were assaulted, like underage drinking. The new laws took effect in June.

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