It’s unclear whether a change in federal policy on investigating campus sexual assaults will have an effect on Washington schools.

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Editor’s note: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Friday, Sept. 22, scrapped Obama-era guidance on investigating campus sexual assault. Read more about it at st.news/2wGVsHY.


 

Seven Washington colleges and universities are under active federal investigation for possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence, but it’s unclear what Thursday’s announcement of an impending change in federal policy could mean for those investigations.

Meanwhile, many of the state’s colleges and universities have already made changes to the way they handle sexual assaults, spurred in part by an Obama-era directive in April 2011 and state legislation passed in 2015.

“I’m very concerned that we, as a state, do not go backwards,” said Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who as a state senator helped pass legislation to strengthen how colleges and universities respond to cases of sexual assault. Kohl-Welles now serves on the King County Council.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday said the Obama administration’s approach to stopping sexual assault on college campuses — using the federal law known as Title IX — had failed because it used increasingly elaborate guidelines that even lawyers found difficult to navigate. DeVos also said the policy had “weaponized” the department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), using it to open up hundreds of investigations into sexual misconduct at schools.

Still, while criticizing the Obama-era approach, DeVos on Thursday did not rescind the April 2011 letter that outlined how colleges should handle complaints of sexual assaults. Instead, she called for a notice-and-comment period to review the rules.

Kohl-Welles, a Democrat, said she is concerned DeVos’s efforts could “dilute the protections in place” in this state. And U.S. Sen. Patty Murray had stronger words, saying: “Secretary DeVos just made an open invitation to colleges to once again sweep this national epidemic under the rug.”

Kate Leonard, the Title IX coordinator for the University of Washington, said she watched DeVos’ speech and was relieved that the education secretary didn’t rescind the rules. “There’s always room for improvement,” she added.

And Sue Guenter-Schlesinger, the vice-provost for equal opportunity at Western Washington University, said Western developed “an extremely robust program” at the Bellingham school as a result of the April 2011 letter.

OCR has started 432 investigations of colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual violence, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. So far, only 73 of those cases have been resolved.

The 11 cases in Washington include four open cases at Washington State University, and one at the University of Washington.

Few details have ever been released on any of the cases. For example, in June 2015, OCR started an investigation into the UW after a student alleged that the university failed to provide a “prompt and equitable grievance process after the student reported an incident of sexual violence,” but neither OCR or the UW have ever released additional details.

Leonard said some UW students have said they’d like to see changes in the way OCR handles the cases because “the process can be lengthy and traumatic.”

In addition to the UW and WSU cases, there is one investigation ongoing at Eastern Washington University and two ongoing at Western Washington University. Edmonds Community College is the only two-year college in Washington with an open case, which dates to May 2016. Two private colleges — Whitman and Whitworth — have one case each.

Washington state has taken its own path to address sexual violence on campus.

In 2015, state lawmakers passed two bills that aimed to address the problem, including one that created a task force to study different ways of handling sexual assault investigations. The other bill outlined the disciplinary process, required colleges and universities to publicize the institution’s compliance with campus sexual violence confidentiality and reporting requirements, and called for a survey to gauge how much of a problem sexual assault was on each campus.

The legislation also called for memorandums of understanding between the colleges and local police that outlined each party’s role in responding to a sexual assault.

State Sen. Barbara Bailey, who sponsored the task force legislation, said she’s a firm believer in letting each college craft its own plan for making campus safe from sexual violence.

“This is not one-size-fits-all,” said the Oak Harbor Republican. “These are issues that need to be individualized on each campus, because the faculty and students know what they need to make everyone safe on their campus.”

But she also said the work should be “constantly revisited … what was a safe environment 10 years ago is maybe not that way now.”

The task force released an 86-page report in December 2016. It made 17 recommendations, and emphasized funding, evaluation and research, and training and professional development.

The UW last month approved a new conduct code and policies that revamped the way the university responds to and investigates sexual assaults, Leonard said. For example, victims are provided with an advocate — a confidential resource — to discuss the student’s rights, options and resources. The victim and the accused are given a written notice of the allegations, and the process is designed so students don’t need an attorney.

“We really want our process to be student-centered, student-focused,” Leonard said. “We would like it to be less like a criminal procedure.”

Western, too, has changed the way it handles sexual assaults. It hired a Title IX investigator, revamped its student conduct code, and made training on preventing sexual violence mandatory for every student and new employee.

The Obama administration’s guidance was important because it “defined sexual violence, or sexual assault, as a type of discrimination,” Guenter-Schlesinger said. “It provided survivors an opportunity to see redress that doesn’t go through the criminal justice system,” a path that made it easier for victims to come forward after an assault, she said.

In the nation’s capital, Murray (D-Wash.) responded to the Education secretary’s speech by saying justice will be harder to serve as DeVos attempts to dismantle parts of Title IX. Murray is the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

She added that DeVos lacks an understanding of those who have experienced sexual violence on campus and continues to undermine victims’ rights.

“I urge Secretary DeVos to reconsider this harmful step backward, and instead start supporting survivors and working to combat this national crisis,” Murray stated.

UW Police Maj. Steve Rittereiser, who serves on the university’s Title IX committee, said he doesn’t believe the entire system is broken, but acknowledged that DeVos had pointed to some cases where it failed.

“Many schools like UW are able to work in the system and provide services to remedy situations,” he said. “It seems in my experience smaller schools may not have the resources or staff for a comprehensive response.”

Rittereiser said UW police coordinate with the Title IX administrator and investigator as well as with student life associations. He welcomes the comment period when DeVos will hear how schools can update policies.