University of Kentucky must not retreat on sex abuse

Published 11:01 am Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Six years before #MeToo took off, college campuses woke to an Obama administration crackdown on sexual violence and harassment.

The obligation to be certain of a sexual partner’s consent is now etched on the average college student’s consciousness — and conscience — like never before. That is an irrefutable good.

Could that progress be wiped out, as some fear, by the Trump administration’s reversal of Obama-era directives, at a time when the White House is occupied by a man who boasted of grabbing unsuspecting women by the, well, you know?

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The University of Kentucky will be a test case.

UK was a year into revising rules on sexual misconduct — from revenge porn to rape — when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos scrapped Obama era guidance.

UK’s new regulation is one of the first influenced by Devos’ advice.

One Devos-permitted change that UK President Eli Capilouto chose to adopt denies accusers the right to appeal an unfavorable ruling in a disciplinary case. Before, both parties were guaranteed the right to appeal.

Some experts say that change violates legal mandates for an equitable process, one in which both sides have the same rights, and could spark a court challenge. Advocates say it satisfies federal law by strengthening fair treatment for all or due process. Stay tuned.

UK rejected the most controversial change allowed by DeVos: changing the standard of proof from a preponderance of evidence to the more rigorous clear and convincing evidence.

Capilouto accepted a committee’s recommendation to keep the “preponderance” (more than a 50 percent certainty) standard. At UK, a three-person panel, with a law professor or retired judge presiding, hears evidence and rules. Under the new reg, a less than unanimous decision exonerates the accused.

More concerning than the legal particulars is the possibility that administrators will be emboldened to again sweep sexual misconduct under the rug and victims will be abandoned.

UK students seeking help far outnumber those seeking hearings, as Linda Blackford reported. Of 159 sexual misconduct complaints last year, fewer than five went to a hearing. The year before there were 153 complaints and six hearings — on a campus of 30,000 students. Complaints also are lodged by observers who are required to report suspected sexual abuse.

Most students who turn to UK’s Title IX office or Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Center are not out to punish anyone, they just want the offending conduct to stop. UK provides them options, including changing dorms and schedules, campus protective orders, help making up class work or extending deadlines.

UK has invested a lot of resources in building these supports; it’s hard to see them going away without a protest — especially when the need is so great. UK student surveys report many more sexual assaults than the number of formal complaints.

Now there are fears that changes in the complaint process — magnified by the Trump crew’s extreme rhetoric and victim blaming — will have a chilling effect, that even fewer students will come forward to seek safety. UK should monitor the effects and make sure that does not happen.

Lexington Herald-Leader