Trump administration drops guidance on college sex-crime probes

(Reuters) - The Trump administration on Friday reversed Obama-era guidelines on how colleges should handle sexual assault allegations that it said treated the accused unfairly.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the guidelines established under former Democratic President Barack Obama, under the Title IX U.S. education equality rules, led to too many students being falsely charged, and that schools were scared of being accused of ignoring accusations.

The Education Department is issuing new “interim guidance” to help schools combat sexual misconduct while treating all students fairly, DeVos said in a statement.

It also issued a Q&A that, among other things, described a school’s responsibility to address such complaints, detailed interim measures that may be appropriate, and summarized what procedures a school should follow to adjudicate a finding.

“Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on,” DeVos said in the statement. “But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.”

The interim guidelines stress that investigations must be “equitable,” with full disclosure of evidence to both parties.

Advocates for sexual assault victims feared the move would curb protections and could discourage victims from speaking out.

“This is a blatant rollback from the strong and much-needed guidance that was in place,” said Kim Churches, chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women.

House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi denounced the change as a “shocking attack” on women that dismantles protections that millions of young people have relied on for safety and justice.

The guidelines set up under Obama have come under fire from critics because of the strict rules colleges must follow when investigating sexual assault complaints or risk losing funding under Title IX, the federal law that bars sexual discrimination in education.

The Obama guidelines, issued in 2011 and updated in 2014, required colleges to investigate complaints even if there was a separate criminal probe. Unlike in criminal cases, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, universities may judge students based on a preponderance of evidence.

That guidance “may have been well-intentioned,” the Education Department said, but it led to “the deprivation of rights for many students.”

In developing a new set of guidelines, the department said it would follow a standard rule-making process, including seeking public comments.

The new guidelines come after high-profile cases of campus sexual assaults, including at Stanford University in California where an athlete received a light sentence after being convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

Earlier this month, the Education Department said 360 sexual violence cases were under investigation at 250 colleges and universities.