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Advocates for sexual assault survivors are cheering a move by the Biden administration to change the way cases of sexual assault and harassment are handled by schools. Acting on a campaign promise, President Biden has ordered education officials to start considering how to roll back Trump administration rules that bolster the rights of the accused. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's only been about half a year since the Trump administration enacted its rules in place of the Obama administration's. And now, President Biden is about to flip things again.
SAGE CARSON: We're buckling up for what comes next.
SMITH: Sage Carson, from the Title IX advocacy group called Know Your IX, says an administration official told her they're working with intentional urgency to roll back the rules that Biden has called an effort to shame and silence survivors. The regulations exempt schools from having to respond to many off-campus incidents, and they narrow the definition of sexual harassment. They also beef up due process protections for accused students - for example, by allowing schools to require more evidence and by mandating live hearings with cross-examination through a third party. Carson says those changes are a gross overcorrection.
CARSON: This goes beyond what is required. These were special rights just for students accused of sexual misconduct that stacked the decks against student survivors.
SMITH: Carson says the new rules are already having a chilling effect, making survivors less willing to report. But for all those like her expressing relief at the promise of change, there's fear on the other side from those who believe accused students will be presumed guilty. Among those is defense attorney Patricia Hammill.
PATRICIA HAMILL: Students, rightly so, are concerned that there will be a rollback to an era with no live hearings, no ability to really probe the other person's narrative. And I think those are all great concerns for students who are accused of what is a very serious and significant misconduct. And it can have lifelong consequences.
JOE COHN: The administration will not be able to easily ditch the regulations, and we'll fight tooth and nail to make sure that they don't.
SMITH: Joe Cohn, with the civil liberties advocacy group known as FIRE, says federal courts have clearly affirmed students' due process rights and the Biden administration will be limited in how much they can change. Change is also likely to be slow. While the Obama administration issued guidance, the current rules went through a much more laborious process to become official regulations. So any effort to change them will also have to do the same and would likely take more than a year.
TERRY HARTLE: This is going to be a long march. This is a huge undertaking.
SMITH: Terry Hartle is with the American Council on Education, a trade group of colleges and universities which objects to the Trump administration rules. Hartle says they not only work against survivors, but they're also unworkable for schools who are not equipped to play the part of courts.
HARTLE: We're not judicial bodies. These are campus officials not trained to navigate these sort of quasi-legal disputes.
SMITH: Equally importantly, schools want the issue settled once and for all so policies don't keep flipping back and forth with each administration. Some say the only way to do that is to get broader buy-in from the start. Even in these politically charged times, they say, it can and has been done. Just a few years ago, a small group of advocates for survivors, the accused and schools all sat down together, and within a few months, they had hashed out a set of rules they were all willing to endorse.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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