The U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently implemented a series of new federal regulations decreasing the amount of evidence necessary to substantiate claims of sexual harassment and violence at federally funded universities.
The legislation requires colleges to instate a “preponderance of the evidence” guideline, lowering the evidentiary burden required to indicate that a sexually based crime is more likely than not to have taken place. The revised standards replace the “clear and convincing” precedent requiring that proof provide verification “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Will Creeley, director of Legal and Public Advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the organization feels the measure heightens the risk of condemning innocent individuals for serious crimes such as sexual harassment and assault.
“We [at FIRE] think that when someone is accused of doing something terrible, they should be innocent until proven guilty and provided with proper hearings that provide clear and convincing evidence,” Creeley said. “That medium standard is consistent with the American perception of justice; however, the new OCR requirement that a student only needs to show preponderance of evidence is too low of a standard for these types of crimes.”
However, Rape Prevention Education Program intern Alyssa Avila, a fourth-year feminist studies major, said sexual crime victims can face difficulties providing validation of their claims under the previous system.
“It’s hard to acquire evidence in general because the acts often occur in places that the victim thought was safe,” Avila said. “They obviously weren’t expecting it, so the evidence is usually hard to prove.”
The Center for Public Integrity’s investigation and analysis of sexual assault crime rates on U.S. college campuses spurred the department’s mandate early last month.
The OCR is responsible for enforcing the legal code and can conduct investigations and cut federal funding for schools failing to comply with civil rights laws. Creeley said the new standards limit the campus administration’s ability to self-govern and imposes consequences on universities that fail to comply.
“Before, schools themselves could decide the call for evidence as specific to their campus needs, but because of the regulations, the ability for an institution to decide its own legal standards has been removed completely,” Creeley said. “All violators of these federal rules risk the loss of federal funding and are subject to investigation by the FBI.”
According to Creeley, several notable universities including Yale, Harvard and Princeton are already under investigation for not following the federal requirements.
Despite concerns about the legislation’s impact on the university’s administration, UCSB Women’s Center Advocacy Support specialist Kegan Allee said the new legal code is a positive step in bringing justice to victims.
“I absolutely support the new regulations because in these cases, a higher standard of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt is often too hard to prove,” Allee said. “Without these changes, they would be creating an environment that makes it much harder for victims to come forward. It’s an unfair standard.”