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AG Shapiro: Proposed sex assault policy changes threaten campus safety

September 23, 2018
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Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is joined by Pitt faculty and students to speak on his office's Campus Safety Report during a press conference at the University of Pittsburgh's William Pitt Union on Aug. 29, 2018.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro rebuked the Trump administration Wednesday over proposed changes to school sexual assault policies that Pennsylvania’s top prosecutor claimed “threaten to make college campuses less safe, not more safe.”

“We made important strides over the last years of the Obama administration when it comes to Title IX issues,” Shapiro said during a news conference at the University of Pittsburgh’s William Pitt Student Union in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. “And the idea that Secretary Betsy DeVos would want to roll back those Title IX (civil rights) protections is something that does not sit well with me.”

Shapiro made the remarks while discussing a new statewide campus safety report based on nearly a year of input from more than 67 of the state’s more than 200 colleges and universities, as well as local police, prosecutors and community-based groups and advocates.

“I have all the confidence in the world in our university leaders of Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said. “They’ll fill the gap created by the Trump administration’s wrong-headed policies.”

The 36-page report developed by Shapiro’s office includes more than 30 recommendations and examples of steps that higher education officials can take to improve safety across four key areas -- including not only sexual assault but also drugs and alcohol, mental health and campus climate.

Schools should consider, for instance, establishing Special Victims Units within campus police departments; eliminating barriers to reporting abuse; and updating agreements with local police to prepare for emergencies before they happen, the report says.

“It can’t just be law enforcement coming in and dictating to people on campuses what needs to be done,” Shapiro said.

DeVos veers from Obama-era guidance

Also on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that it obtained a copy of proposed Title IX rules that DeVos has been preparing that could redefine sexual assault in schools and veer away from several Obama administration directives.

President Trump and DeVos began stirring controversy around the issue last year by pledging to replace a “failed system” of responding to sexual assaults on college campuses.

Shapiro joined 19 other state attorneys general in urging DeVos not to proceed with rescinding the Office of Civil Rights guidance documents in question issued under President Obama.

DeVos has repeatedly emphasized the rights of accused students, though several Title IX experts and university officials have said Obama’s guidance actually spurred schools to implement more protections for the accused.

According to the Times, the Trump administration’s proposed rules would further strengthen the rights of those accused of assault, harassment or rape and lessen liability for colleges.

The federal government would define sexual harassment in schools as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity,” the Times reports.

Previously, the term had been defined more broadly as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”

The proposed rules, which could be revised, encourage schools to improve support for victims of assault but leave it up to university officials whether to have an appeals process and decide which type of evidentiary standard to use when proving misconduct, the Times reports.

DeVos also has promoted more informal mediation to reach resolutions -- a move the Obama administration frowned upon even when voluntary because of the potential for “traumatic and intimidating” exchanges that could exacerbate already traumatic experiences.

Schools only would be responsible for investigating complaints of which they have “actual knowledge” that misconduct happened on campus property or via school programs, and not off-campus housing, the Times said. Previously, schools were told to investigate complaints regardless of where the alleged conduct happened.

“The department recognizes that despite well-intentioned efforts by school districts, colleges and universities, advocacy organizations and the department itself, sexual harassment and assault continue to present serious problems across the nation’s campuses,” the department wrote in the draft rule, as reported by the Times. “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.”

‘Me Too’ momentum in higher ed

Pitt officials said reports of sexual harassment and assault climbed last year with the rise of the “Me Too” movement, which gained momentum when celebrities began posting their stories of sex abuse on social media following allegations of wrongdoing by film producer Harvey Weinstein, television journalists Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and others.

According to Shapiro’s office, about 11 percent of all college students and 23 percent of female students report experiencing rape or sexual assault, with the figures estimated to be higher because so many incidents go unreported.

Sarah Stone, a senior at Pitt studying communication and rhetoric, said when she started college a few years ago, Pitt had one peer support program dedicated to victims of sex abuse.

Pitt had just begun to include in orientation one of the report’s suggestions, bystander intervention training, which aims to teach students to support friends in need and be among the first lines of defense against sex abuse as well as other serious problems such as drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and suicide.

“But since that time, students have worked alongside staff to create a discussion-based group focused on consent and sexuality; a bystander intervention certification program; and support through an online publication for survivors,” Stone said.

She’s hopeful Pitt will consider implementing other recommendations in the report.

“A lot of the things in there, we’re doing a great job on already, but there definitely are things in there that I’d like to see added,” Stone said. “I definitely think that having a Special Victims Unit for the Pitt police would be an awesome initiative to have because I’ve talked to survivors who’ve had less-than-ideal experiences with the police before.”

From last August to May, more than 350 people participated in conversation sessions that informed the final report during events at five campuses -- Pitt, Dickinson College and Lincoln, Slippery Rock and Drexel universities.

Read the full campus safety report.

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