Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. On Sept. 22, the Department of Education withdrew the Obama-era guidance on how schools should handle sexual assaults under Title IX. GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR VIA CC BY-SA 2.0

As the U.S. Department of Education looks toward possibly altering the Title IX amendment of the Education Amendments of 1972, college students across the country are raising questions about how this could affect their rights in sexual assault cases.

On Thursday, Sept. 7, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke about perceived issues with Title IX as it stands. DeVos asserted that protections for victims of sexual assault should continue, while legal protections for the accused should expand. Then, on Sept. 22, the Department of Education withdrew the Dear Colleague Letter of 2011, an Obama-era statement of policy and guidance that granted increased protections to victims of sexual assault.

With growing discussion of sexual crime on campus, concern for what comes next for Stony Brook students is growing.

“There’s a problem with the overestimation of sexual assault on college campuses and the presumed guilt of the assailant in many small colleges,” Rose Doherty, a freshman computer science major, said. “However, these are minority cases and do not justify the repeal of Obama-era policies, which at least admitted sensual assault existed and it was a problem.” Sensual assault refers to cases of sexual harassment that do not constitute rape. This includes groping, verbal harassment and other related acts.

Some students were hesitant about the idea of more rights being granted to the accused, as DeVos proposed.

“We already have enough rapists going free,” Sarah Gouveia, a sophomore psychology major said. “It’s bullshit and so is Betsy DeVos.”

Members from various campus political and social organizations voiced their opinions on DeVos’ news, expressing differing views over the new regulations concerning Title IX.

David Clark, a junior applied mathematics and statistics and biology double major, vice president of the university’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) expressed concern for the changes DeVos has proposed. He added that instances of false accusations had been exaggerated by the administration, citing a 2010 study which showed that only 2 to 10 percent of college sexual assault cases were falsely reported.

“We talked about this over the summer because we saw the DeVos administration was ruminating about changing certain aspects of Title IX policy, and we wanted to be ready to respond at Stony Brook,” Clark said. “Specifically for Stony Brook, we would ask that they commit as they currently have in the student conduct code to having 60 days or less pass between the reporting of a sexual assault and the disciplinary process, that they continue their affirmative consent policy… that they continue to have events such as Take Back The Night, which are awareness-building.”

On the other hand, Joseph Mauro, a freshman business management major, and a member of Stony Brook College Republicans, sides with DeVos.

“The accused should have their own rights as well… it’s very easy to side with the victim in a lot of situations, and I feel like we need to keep in mind that it’s innocent until proven guilty,” Mauro said.

Mauro said he thought it was possible to have strong rights for both the accuser and the accused, the latter of which are often subjected to some form of bias.

“If we’re implementing [Title IX] in the right way, we can have rights for the accused and the accuser,” Mauro said. “The bias generally lies towards the accused, because people are very emotional, and when they see a victim coming forward after an emotional event they tend to side more with them because they can empathize with the victim.”

Cecilia Masselli, a sophomore political science major, and the Vice President of Stony Brook College Democrats, said sexual assault cases, generally, do not abuse the rights of the accused. Rather, they carry out justice fairly in most cases, she said, and in the cases of injustice, it is generally the assault survivor who is hurt.

“The issue that Betsy DeVos focused on was the preponderance of evidence that these guidelines use to establish guilt,” Masselli said. “The preponderance of evidence means that if you’re found guilty… you’re guilty in the university’s eyes, and you’ve been found guilty in a civil lawsuit. It’s not a criminal prosecution. In order to be found guilty under the preponderance of evidence, the jury needs to rule against you in a majority. This has not been a problem, as the preponderance of evidence is a standard that has been used in a lot of discrimination cases, a lot of civil lawsuits,” she said.

She also said our campus is very progressive and full of resources for victims, and she said she will work to ensure the safety and voices of students.

“It’s no surprise that Donald Trump, a man who brags about committing sexual assault himself, would oversee the rescinding of such important legislation that protects people from assault,” Lexi Hoff, a sophomore computer science major, said.

If negative changes come to Title IX, members of the College Democrats said they will write letters to both Stony Brook’s administration and to Congressman Lee Zeldin. “We live in a rape culture,” Masselli said. “We have people asking questions when victims come forward. You have people who will say, ‘What were you wearing?’ and ‘How much did you drink?’ We have a culture of victim-blaming, and it’s never the victim’s fault.”

“Stony Brook University is dedicated to providing a safe and welcoming educational environment for our community free from all forms of gender discrimination, including sexual violence,” said Alida Almonte, manager of University Media Relations. “We are reviewing recent communication from the U.S. Education Department and Office of Civil Rights to understand how it might impact our policies and procedures around Title IX enforcement… We will continue to be proactive in communicating and educating around the prevention of gender based violence and to offer support and services for victims of sexual assault.”

In February 2015, Stony Brook graduate Sarah Tubbs sued the university for treating her sexual assault case with “deliberate indifference.” This lawsuit is still ongoing. In January 2017, Tubbs launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the costs of her lawsuit. Tubbs has made $21,350 of her $25,000 goal through the platform.

What DeVos is proposing is a change of law. Her proposal, if approved, would need to be established in the legislative branch and signed into law by President Trump. This is, of course, barring use of an executive order. The exact details of the possible change are currently unknown.

Correction: Oct 2., 2017

A previous version of this article misidentified Cecilia Masselli, as a member of the Stony Brook College Democrats. The story has been updated to more accurately represent Masselli as the Vice President of the Stony Brook College Democrats.