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College campuses can now respond to sexual assault their own way, on their own time

University of Washington campus at night.
Flickr Photo/Alireza Borhani (CC BY NC ND 2.0)/
University of Washington campus at night.

Sexual assault has been “a scourge on American (college) campuses” for generations, according to Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of "Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus."

For years, she said, “universities had sexual assault allegations swept under the rug; they didn’t want to handle it, it was too complicated for them. So they preferred that victims would go on their merry way.”

Now the Trump administration is changing the guidelines for handling sexual assault on campuses. They’re scrapping the rules that were put into place by the Obama administration that directed colleges to use the lowest standard of proof in deciding whether a student was responsible for a sexual assault.

While Grigoriadis said these cases were murky and some innocent people were being “railroaded,” a low standard of proof is needed because the issue isn’t about the courts, it’s about social change.

“Let’s focus on the problem itself and not get sidetracked by thinking about what cases may or may not have been decided completely fairly,” she said, speaking to Bill Radke on KUOW’s The Record.

The Department of Education is leaving the implementation of changes up to colleges. Washington state public universities have already said they have no plans to modify their systems.

Under Obama’s guidelines, universities had to decide these cases within 60 days, which was hard for the institutions to adjudicate and resolve, Grigoriadis said.

But Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has not given a timeframe for what “reasonably prompt” means now.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Author Vanessa Grigoriadis", "fid": "139547", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201709/grigoriadis_vanessa.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy photo"}]]“So a freshman girl can bring a sexual assault claim her freshman year and then maybe that won’t be decided until her junior year? That’s not fair to her,” Girgoriadis said.

The guidance will allow colleges to handle sexual assault claims any way they see fit. Grigoriadis expects to see a patchwork of policies around evidence and proof of assault at schools around the country. 

One way that could play out, she said, is that some universities will have a low standard of proof “and it will be very hard to get away with sexual assault, at others it will be a lot easier.” 

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012