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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks on Jan. 17, 2017, during her confirmation hearing.
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By Michael Dougherty and Jim Martin

The U.S. Department of Education is poised to weaken Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on Colorado’s college and university campuses, including the University of Colorado Boulder. Absent any reversal, new Title IX regulations on sexual misconduct will take effect Aug. 14.

If enacted, these Title IX rollbacks will make it more difficult for victims to report sexual assaults at their colleges. In so doing, the federal government will greatly diminish the ability of Colorado to protect victims and to secure justice for them.

This latest move, which was one of President Donald Trump’s priorities upon taking office, is part of a systemic trend at the federal level to unravel progress made for sex assault survivors under Title IX. Besty DeVos, the top official at the U.S. Department of Education, has previously declared that 90 percent of sexual assault complaints are due to both parties being drunk.

It is clear the current administration continues to operate under the same antiquated, preconceived notions that made it so difficult for college students to report incidents of sexual assaults in decades past. Prior to Title IX and other reforms, false stereotypes and stigmas often silenced sexual assault survivors, allowing serious crimes to remain unreported. For too long, and for far too many victims, schools nationwide failed to respond and did not act.

Title IX requires educational institutions that receive federal funding to protect students from gender-based violence, including sexual assault.  This process is separate, and much different, from the criminal justice process.

At the university level, the punishment is not criminal. Rather, Title IX enables colleges, just as employers may, to address allegations of sexual assault internally and separately from the criminal justice system. Yet the Trump administration has conflated the two systems in seeking to justify the rule changes. The regulations will impose different obligations for how school hearings must be conducted.

Victims will be less likely to report the offense through the Title IX process because the Trump administration’s changes will make school hearings more like criminal trials (including with live cross-examination), but without the procedural safeguards offered through the criminal justice process. The coming Title IX rollbacks will put victims through a traumatic reporting process, rather than ensuring they receive the support needed from university administrations.

In a college town like Boulder, we are especially concerned about these actions that will diminish the ability to address sexual assault crimes on college campuses. Student victims will no longer have the same benefits of turning to the university for help instead of the criminal justice system.

The proposed new rules clearly are designed to discourage victims from filing a complaint with the university. That’s just wrong. The education department must continue creating safe campuses and giving victims better access to justice.

Colorado is no stranger to the difficult issue of sexual assaults on campus. According to CU Boulder, over 28% of female students experience rape or sexual assault as undergraduates on campus. Yet, as CU Boulder notes, an estimated 54% of assaults go unreported. Title IX had taken positive steps to change that dynamic — until now.

The criminal justice system also has made significant progress in the prosecution of sex offenses through rape shield laws, the Victims’ Rights Act and the formation of specialized units to handle these complex and sensitive crimes. For example, the DA’s Office has an outstanding Sexual Assault Unit. One glaring pattern among the hundreds of criminal prosecutions stands out: the reluctance of victims to publicly report the traumatic assault. Title IX should present a meaningful alternative for student victims fearful of engaging in criminal prosecutions.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is seeking to preserve Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault, recently announcing that he will defend campus sex assault policies from the weaker federal mandates of DeVos and President Trump. But we all need to speak out before these changes take effect in August.

The U.S. Department of Education wants us to return to a world in which Title IX no longer affords a fair, supportive system for the reporting and investigation of sexual assault by schools. We cannot let this regression occur. The result would be to silence survivors of sexual assaults.

We must be bold and make clear to the next generation that this behavior is unacceptable. We hope that the federal government will reconsider the impacts on the lives of students. We have come too far into the light to sweep campus sexual assaults back into darkness.

Michael Dougherty is the District Attorney for the 20th Judicial District (Boulder County). Jim Martin is a former CU regent.

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