Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reversed Obama-era policy guidelines today that sought greater accountability for campus sexual assault. Devos's new rules now create a higher level of evidentiary proof against alleged campus rapists than any other alleged perpetrators of campus misconduct.
But the new federal guidelines are unlikely to change policies at Washington State schools, said Rep. Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge Island), chair of the House Higher Education Committee.
"I don't see any reason why we would make it significantly harder for sexual assault survivors to prove cases in student misconduct processes than other victims of student misconduct," Hansen told The Stranger. "We had a task force that met for about a year on sexual assault on campus, and the conclusion that sexual assault is more underreported than it is over-reported."
The University of Washington has also said that it will not change its evidentiary standard.
"The University of Washington is committed to providing a safe and secure environment for our students and campus community," a university spokesperson said in a statement. "The ‘interim guidance’ issued today does not change the university's commitment to preventing and responding to sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, relationship violence, domestic violence, stalking and sexual harassment. The UW continues to provide resources and support to anyone reporting sexual assault, and to educate our community about sexual assault and the responsibility we all share in maintaining a community in which students are safe from sexual assault, harassment and discrimination."
Student misconduct policies at Washington universities cover both criminal and non-criminal behavior—including behavior like rape and theft. These cases, which are handled within the university and not in the criminal justice system, require a "preponderance of evidence," a lower standard than what DeVos is calling for in the investigation of campus rape. Hansen said that he had spoken with officials at the Council of Presidents, the association of Washington's six public colleges and universities, who told him that they were unlikely to change their rules to align with the new Department of Education guidance.
"It would make no sense at all to rewrite the standard of proof rules for one category of criminal student misconduct, namely sexual assault, when you leave alone standard of proof rules for other student misconduct like theft or illegal drug use," Hansen said.
Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), who also sits on the House Higher Education Committee, called Devos's proposed rule change "horrifying."
"It is horrifying to have the Trump-Devos administration encouraging mediation between rapists and their victims instead of ensuring that campuses have police investigate rape and refer the cases to prosecutors," Pollet said. "We have a culture across the country of avoiding police and prosecution, and that needs to end."
Pollet added that current campus policies often still don't go far enough to protect victims of sexual assault.
"It is nothing short of twisted to say that other serious campus misconduct cases are determined on a 'preponderance of evidence,' and sexual assault requires something greater for a misconduct case," Pollet said. "Sadly, all too often a misconduct case is the only thing that the victim gets to pursue because because sexual assault and rape on campus are all too often not treated as crimes."
State Senator Lynda Wilson, chair of the higher education committee in the state senate, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Both Seattle University and the University of Puget Sound, both private institutions, said that they would not change their evidentiary standard in sexual assault cases. Spokespeople from Gonzaga University and Seattle Pacific University both said that their institutions were still reviewing the new rules.