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Colorado Springs colleges await sexual assault policy changes after DeVos criticism

September 8, 2017 Updated: September 8, 2017 at 5:26 pm
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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens during her introduction to speak about campus sexual assault and enforcement of Title IX, the federal law that bars discrimination in education on the basis of gender, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Local higher education officials are anxiously watching for what might come down the pike after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos talked about changing the federal Title IX sexual misconduct policy that governs college and university campuses.

"I'm a little nervous," said Gail Murphy-Geiss, an associate professor of sociology at Colorado College and the school's Title IX coordinator.

"We were made to clean up our act under the Obama administration, and I hope we don't end up going back because we've gone too far. It's not like that at all at CC."

DeVos and other critics say that the 2011 revamping of how colleges enforce Title IX in cases of sexual assault has unfairly favored victims and has not given alleged perpetrators equal consideration.

The rules require schools to investigate and resolve all complaints of sexual assault, even when there are civil or criminal cases involved.

DeVos said she would seek public feedback in revising rules made under former president Barack Obama, based on problems that have occurred at some universities around the nation in the investigation of sexual misconduct allegations.

Murphy-Geiss said she's concerned about several areas of possible tweaking, including raising the bar on evidence.

"The standard for all student conduct, including Title IX, is preponderance of evidence, which means more likely than not something happened, maybe 51 percent," Murphy-Geiss said. "The concern is the bar should be higher ... clear and convincing evidence, which is used in many, but not all, civil courts where there are money damages. We're not a court of law, we're trying to monitor student behavior and create a learning environment."

As to the criticism that the current system is not fair to those accused of inappropriate actions, Murphy-Geiss said the victim and the accused are "given the chance to get all documents and verify comments."

"There may be cases where people are treated unfairly across the country, but it's not widespread, and it's not happening here," she said.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints that fall under Title IX regulations are a small part of student conduct policies on campuses. Honor violations, such as plagiarism or cheating, along with underage drinking, drug use, destruction of property, noise violations and related misbehaviors also come under conduct codes.

DeVos also indicated that the attorney system might undergo revisions. Currently all students are allowed, but not required, to have an attorney present at a school conduct hearing.

"The reality is that only the wealthy kids have lawyers," Murphy-Geiss said, adding that she favors returning to the pre-Obama condition that schools could ban attorneys, which is what CC did.

Another issue being considered is requiring campuses to use outside investigators.

"We have staff and faculty who are trained and know the college, the students, the culture," Murphy-Geiss said. "We make decisions all the time; I'm not sure why this particular behavior is different from all the others."

The University of Colorado, which includes the Colorado Springs campus, issued a statement following DeVos' remarks Thursday at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., about Title IX laws.

"We agree that all students, both victims of sexual assault and those accused of sexual assault, are entitled to fair and reliable processes," said Ken McConnellogue, a University of Colorado system spokesman and vice president. "We believe that the University of Colorado campuses have adopted policies that have been fair on paper and in practice."

McConnellogue said university officials "look forward to reviewing any new policies that the Department of Education proposes and will continue to work toward preventing sexual misconduct of any kind on our campuses."

Murphy-Geiss said she hopes any new directives do not discourage students from filing complaints.

"A very small percentage of students report those cases for lots of reasons," she said. "Requiring everyone use lawyers alone might suppress complaints."

Responses to a campus survey CC conducted a few years ago mirrored national averages Murphy-Geiss said, with 23 percent of female students and about 6 percent of male students saying they had been sexually harassed or assaulted while at CC.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. And more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the incident.

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