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Proposed changes in campus assault rules draw fire

August 30, 2018

As thousands of college students head back to class this week, Connecticut leaders are slamming new rules proposed by the Trump administration that would increase the rights of students accused of sexual misconduct and reduce liability for colleges and universities.

Details of the new rules emerge in the midst of the #MeToo movement and days after a report from Yale University revealed a record number of sexual misconduct complaints in 2018.

The rules, set to be proposed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, would narrow the definition of sexual harassment, only hold schools accountable for formal complaints about incidents on campus, and establish a higher legal standard to determine whether schools improperly addressed complaints. The proposed rules were first reported by The New York Times.

A year ago, DeVos rolled back Obama-era guidance that outlined how schools that receive federal funding should address episodes of sexual misconduct.

“I believe this sends a very clear message to victims:‘Don’t come forward,’” said state Rep. Liz Linehan, who shared details of her own experience as a victim of sexual harassment and assault. “I was of the same age as some of these college students. I have grave concerns about our ability to be able to protect survivors moving forward if we elect an administration who fails to see the importance of affirmative consent, there are too many instances to count.”

Speaking on a conference call organized by Susan Bysiewicz, the Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro criticized the Trump administration for turning sexual misconduct into a partisan issue.

“Fighting against campus sexual assault should not be difficult or even partisan,” DeLauro said. “All of us and others are not going to stand for this. The administration may want to abandon these men and women so they would suffer alone with the trauma, but to those survivors, I say strongly ... in the Congress and across the country, you are not alone.”

If elected, Ned Lamont, Democratic nominee for governor, said he would sign an executive order and introduce legislation that maintains and expands protections against campus sexual violence and misconduct for Connecticut students.

“Over the past year, the world has been shocked by horrific stories, some decades-old, told by brave survivors,” Lamont said. “In our state, we believe them. In Connecticut, we stand up for them. We have a basic, moral obligation to do everything possible to make it easier for survivors to come forward.”

A spokesman for the Stefanowski campaign did not return a request for comment

Bysiewicz criticized her Republican opponent for lieutenant governor, Joe Markley, a state senator from Southington who cast the only vote against “Yes means Yes” legislation that passed the Senate in 2015. It passed both chambers of the General Assembly and was signed into law in 2016.

”So it is very clear that the Stefanowski/Markley values are not in line with Connecticut’s values or women’s rights,” Bysiewicz said.

Markley said Thursday that he had not read the new rules proposed by DeVos and could not comment on them. He defended his vote on the “yes means yes” legislation, saying he generally is not in favor of more government oversight and would prefer colleges come up with their own guidance. Cases of sexual misconduct should be handled by the legal system, not by universities, Markley said.

”One of the things that troubled me the most in Connecticut was the low standard of evidence that was required for action,” Markley said. “Anything that increases that standard and guarantees the right to representation is important to me and beneficial to the entire system.”

And he’s not alone. There are many critics of the Obama regulations, including some universities, that have said the existing rules unnecessarily burdened them with bureaucratic mandates. Men’s rights groups have also been critical, saying the accused often have little recourse.

Yale University reported a 24 percent increase in sexual misconduct complaints in the first half of 2018, including 65 for sexual assault and 63 for sexual harassment.

Connecticut is home to dozens of public and private colleges and universities, and state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, a Democrat from Fairfield, emphasized the importance of protecting all students.

“In the midst of a #MeToo movement makes absolutely no sense,” Vahey said. “The policy message to women is don’t speak up, we’re not going to protect you, and to the male victims as well. We have so many universities here in Connecticut. What message does this send to those victims? It lets them know that they need to be concerned.”

kkrasselt@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2563; @kaitlynkrasselt

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