DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's zoom in on another member of President Trump's cabinet. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said this repeatedly, there is a, quote, "better way for schools to handle cases of campus sexual assault." Now Education officials say they are trying to find it. DeVos says new rules must be more fair to the accused students. And she mentioned a few compromised proposals recently hammered out. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, those may be a model for changes to come.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Secretary DeVos says public comment will be key to shaping any new rules, and she wants to incorporate, quote, "the insights of all parties." One model she cited as promising was a task force convened by the American Bar Association. Their aim was to look at the issue from all sides and come up with recommendations.
LAURA DUNN: I think walking in, I was wary.
SMITH: Laura Dunn founded the group SurvJustice to advocate for victims years after she says she was raped at college. She was one of a dozen participants from all camps on the ABA task force who spent several eight-hour sessions holed up together in a conference room.
DUNN: There is apprehension on all sides that it would be challenging and hard and frustrating and possibly resulting in zero agreement at all.
SMITH: But over lots of coffee, emotion and pressure to listen more and bend further, Dunn got to a set of rules she could live with, as did those on the opposite end of the issue like Cynthia Garrett from the group FACE that advocates for accused students.
CYNTHIA GARRETT: Nobody ever gets everything they want. And I understood that I had to compromise just like every other person in that room did.
SMITH: One biggie was how much evidence should be required to prove a sexual assault. Like many others, Garrett saw the current preponderance of the evidence standard as too flimsy and wanted to raise it to, quote, "clear and convincing." But for Dunn, that was a deal breaker. Ultimately, their compromise began to take shape as participants started agreeing to a bunch of other protections. For example, students should have attorneys who can actually speak during hearings.
They should see all the evidence being considered and should be able to do some cross examination through written questions. The group also agreed that cases should not be decided by investigators or by any single person but rather by a unanimous panel, as Dunn ultimately concurred.
DUNN: That was kind of a give to assure people who are more concerned about the rights of those accused that we were ensuring that campuses were really sure when they made this decision.
SMITH: At that point, the evidence issue got easier. With all those other protections in place, members agreed a lower standard is OK. Without them, the bar should go up. Garrett says it also helped that they ditched all the baggage that comes with the legal labels like preponderance or clear and convincing and just spelled out exactly what they meant.
GARRETT: We wrote out that the decision-makers must be convinced. They have to actually believe the evidence. There's no more guessing. That's how I reached the point at which I said, OK.
SMITH: Both Garrett and Dunn say they've taken some flak for compromising from their own sides, which underscores how hard it may be for Secretary DeVos to get any kind of broad buy-in from all the warring factions.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Shame on you, not on us. Shame on you, not on us.
SMITH: And even before DeVos started laying out her position on the issue, many, like longtime activist Lisalyn Jacobs, were expressing outrage.
LISALYN JACOBS: The administration is headed by someone who talked about grabbing women by a word that I will not use, right? We do not trust this administration. We don't trust Betsy DeVos.
SMITH: Some want DeVos to convene a committee to help hash out new rules like the ABA task force or another group DeVos cited, the American College of Trial Lawyers. That group came to a different conclusion that the standard of evidence should be raised. But President Bart Dalton says members remain open-minded. And he says a broader consensus is possible as long as cooler heads prevail.
BART DALTON: It absolutely can be done. There's always an emotional element to this, but we came to a consensus fairly quickly.
SMITH: It's easier to do, he says, when you start with something everyone should agree on, that a system that's mistrusted by some ends up hurting all. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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