In a move that surprised few, the Trump administration announced Sept. 22 that it was rolling back Obama-era protections for sexual assault victims on college campuses. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the new guidelines are designed to make things fairer for accused perpetrators.
What is, perhaps, surprising is that administrators at all of the major local campuses — Portland State University, University of Portland, Lewis & Clark College and Reed College — said they have no plans to change how they handle allegations of sexual assault at their schools.
Not yet, anyway.
Under the new Trump guidelines, colleges now have the option of making it harder for an alleged victim to successfully accuse a schoolmate of rape in college misconduct cases. That's because colleges are now permitted to change their internal policy to allow only "clear and convincing evidence" to find a student guilty of assault. Under President Obama, colleges and universities were required to use a lower standard of guilt, a "preponderance" of evidence. Using that standard, colleges had to find that it was more likely than not that a student engaged in sexual misconduct.
Representatives from PSU, University of Portland, Lewis & Clark and Reed said they have used that lower standard of guilt for all cases of student misconduct — everything from plagiarism to vandalism — and that it continues to make sense to apply it to sexual assault.
Unlike in criminal court, colleges aren't deciding whether accused students should go to prison but whether they can continue to go to school with the person they harmed or, in less serious cases, whether their behavior needs to be corrected. "We're looking to educate students," said Jane Atkinson, vice president and provost at Lewis & Clark. "We're not trying to be a court of law."
The change by the Trump administration comes in response to several high-profile lawsuits by young men who said they were unfairly ejected from school after classmates accused them of sexual assault.
One of those cases hit Reed.
In 2015, a former student identified in court papers only as John Doe filed a federal sex discrimination lawsuit against Reed saying a 2013 episode of group sex that led to his expulsion was consensual. He further argued the college's investigation was tilted against him because he is male.
Court records in U.S. District Court for Oregon show Judge Michael Mosman dismissed the case on June 22, 2016. David Angeli, an attorney for the young man, did not respond to a request for comment. Kevin Myers, a spokesman for Reed, said only that Reed paid no settlement and that the case did not prompt any changes to the college's process for handling sexual-assault allegations.
Mike Brody, vice president for student services at Reed, said the college's process is judicious and that a substantial number of cases result in consequences less severe than expulsion.
He said nothing about the Trump changes would alter the college's primary emphasis.
"Most of our work should be focused on prevention," he said.
The National Women's Law Center, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., said it knows of no college or university that has immediately embraced the Trump administration's option of a higher standard.
But that doesn't mean Abby Sherman, a senior at the University of Portland, is letting down her guard. Sherman, 21, helped form Students Against Sexual Assault at the private, Catholic university last year, just before a female UP student very publicly accused administrators of failing to believe her when she charged that a male student had assaulted her sexually.
Following the Sept. 22 announcement, the Trump administration opened a public comment period on its new guidelines. Sherman said she and other activists are prepared to ensure colleges maintain the option of using the lower standard of guilt.
"To make it even harder on a survivor is so detrimental," she said.