(CNN) — A group of civil rights advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Education Department and its secretary, Betsy Devos, challenging the department’s move last year to roll back Obama-era guidelines on how colleges and universities should handle sexual assault and sexual violence.
In 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights said that colleges should use the “preponderance of the evidence,” the lowest standard of proof, when judging sexual violence cases under Title IX, the federal law that protects people from sexual discrimination in education or other programs receiving federal aid. In September 2017, the Education Department said that colleges and universities could abandon that guidance and use a higher standard, “clear and convincing evidence.”
At that time, the Education Department said that the Obama-era rules “created a system that lacked basic elements of due process and failed to ensure fundamental fairness.”
In a press conference outside the Department of Education on Thursday, leaders of the groups challenged the change, saying that the Obama-era policy included critical protections for survivors of sexual assault, and that the Department’s guidance under DeVos had produced a “chilling effect” on survivors coming forward.
Stacy Malone, the executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center, said that before Obama issued the 2011 guidance, sexual assault survivors “did not feel like they had a voice on the own campus.” Since the Education Department rescinded that guidance, she said, survivors are back at square one.
“They fear they are no longer able to get a fair shake,” she said. “Their reports will not be taken seriously because survivors will be dismissed as women who had drunk regret sex as opposed to who they really are, victims of sexual violence.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, lists DeVos, the Department of Education and Candice Jackson, the top civil rights official at the department, as defendants. Jackson came under fire last year for saying in a New York Times interview that ’90 percent’ of sexual assault allegations come after drunken hookups. She later apologized.
In the lawsuit, the groups allege that the Education Department’s new rules surrounding sexual violence on campus were built on “unfounded generalizations about women and girls, particularly their credibility regarding reported experiences of sexual harassment, including sexual violence.” The groups are calling for the Trump administration’s Title IX policy to be vacated.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to request for comment, but previously said it plans to enact new rules after a public comment period.
In September, DeVos’s move to scrap the Obama-era rules was cheered by advocates for accused students, who said that campus judicial proceedings were biased in favor of female accusers and that the accused students — mostly men — were unable to get a fair shake.
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