OPINION: New sexual assault policies only silence victims

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

In the #MeToo era, it’s a safe assumption that the waves of allegations against powerful men and women who have used their influence to wrongly manipulate others would be enough to convince the U.S. government to take action.

Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of action we need.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is preparing new legislation that promises to revise the way colleges deal with cases of sexual assault and misconduct. The proposed legislation, which was obtained by The New York Times, plans to narrow the definition of sexual harassment, require a greater burden of proof, mandate a lesser obligation for institutions to investigate assault complaints and increase the rights of the accused. However, these changes are ill-intentioned.

Perhaps one of the most damaging changes that DeVos has made to the Obama-era guidelines is the proposed increase of mediation tactics in cases of accusations. DeVos firmly believes that mediation is a positive tool to help resolve these issues. While this may be true in a vacuum, her new policy would actually give accused perpetrators more power.

Under the proposed changes, the perpetrator and the victim will have the ability to directly ask for evidence from one another and give direct cross-examinations. Allowing a perpetrator to directly cross-examine a victim is an inhumane and unnecessary course of action. This would potentially result in a confrontational, humiliating and traumatizing experience for the victim. Mediation on its own can be a good thing, but when it comes to the intense power dynamics at play in cases of assault, direct mediation could be detrimental.

It is obvious that DeVos’ attempt to reform campus assault legislation is not meant to curb or end the problem, but rather to ensure safety for those accused. Sadly, DeVos is not alone in this sentiment.

Over one year ago, news of a woman who falsely accused two Sacred Heart University football players of rape made headlines. One of the two men lost his scholarship and both withdrew from school due to the media and legal frenzy surrounding the unfortunate trial. In the wake of this case, DeVos and others have called for more rights and protections for the accused.

And while this case was used to discredit and delegitimize the #MeToo movement — which was at a viral, all-time high in late 2017 — it does not illustrate a common occurrence.

A study from psychologist David Lisak found that around 6 percent of campus sexual assault reports were deemed false, and that the rate of false accusations is between 2 and 10 percent. Moreover, about 2 percent of all rape charges are determined false — the same rate of false reporting for other crimes.

And yet, during an interview on “60 Minutes” in March, DeVos was asked whether or not there are a higher amount of false accusations or campus rapes. She simply answered: “I don’t know.”

There is no denying that false allegations occur, but having a warped understanding of how big the problem is and using this misunderstanding to justify protecting those who are accused will undoubtedly perpetuate campus assault culture. Fewer victims are likely to come forward if they know that they will have to directly mediate with their assaulters.

DeVos’ plans are a deterrent. Her legislation will further deepen the culture of silence on our college campuses.

And yet, DeVos’ plan also includes legislation that encourages more support for victims who choose to forego writing a formal complaint. The government will not penalize institutions that choose to allow more counseling, extended work deadlines, class scheduling changes and leaves of absences for victims. These foreseeable positive aspects of DeVos’ legislation appear to give more institutional support to victims.

Many of these changes can simply be seen as a way to incentivize informal complaints and a way to disincentivize formal complaints against the accused. Whatever it may be, the newly drafted policies come at an especially relevant and volatile time, as many colleges, including USC, are dealing with sexual assault and abuse charges among faculty and students, alike.

We must do whatever we can to end the culture of silence and victim blaming on campuses. Increasing rights for the accused and increasing the potential humiliation and trauma that comes with cases of assault is not the way to do this.

DeVos must revise her new legislation to eliminate the mediation mandate. Instead of focusing on the trials that come after the fact, the Department of Education should be focused on addressing the root causes of why these trials happen in the first place. Preventative measures and increased education will be more effective than inadequate legislation that protects the accused rather than the victims.