“Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach,” Ms Devos said, in an address at George Mason University’s Law School in Arlington, Virginia.
She added: “With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today.”
The Education Secretary then announced the start of a “notice-and-comment” process to solicit input on a new campus adjudication system.
The address confirmed fears that Ms DeVos would walk back much of the Obama administration's campus sexual misconduct policies, which included a lower standard of proof in assault cases and increased reporting requirements.
While Ms DeVos did not specify exactly what would be changed, she did issue a widespread critique of the former administration's policies – from the campus hearing system to the very definition of sexual assault.
“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” she said. “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”
The Secretary's lack of detail regarding the new system, however, left many activists concerned.
“This removal of all guidance without any vetted replacement plan from the department leaves schools without standards during the new school year,” SurvJustice founder Laura Dunn said in a statement.
Others took issue with Ms DeVos's focus on due process and the rights of the accused. Jess Davidson, managing director of End Rape of Campus, accused the Secretary of using the "guise of fairness" to make a moral equivalence between rapists and survivors.
“She said something about how lives have been ruined – the lives of victims, and the lives of the accused,” Ms Davidson told The Independent. “That is insulting to survivors of sexual violence to make that equivalence.”
The Obama administration had placed a renewed focus on college sexual assault policies after dozens of survivors claimed to have had their cases mishandled. The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) investigated more than 300 such complaints during Mr Obama's tenure.
The administration emphasised the importance of Title IX, the federal law banning gender discrimination in education, in handling campus sexual assault cases. The pivotal Dear Colleague Letter, released by the Education Department in 2011, reminded schools of their responsibility to react "promptly and effectively" to reports of sexual misconduct, and to "take immediate action to eliminate the sexual harassment or sexual violence".
Ms DeVos, however, criticised such letters on Thursday.
"Rather than inviting everyone to the table, the Department insisted it knew better than those who walk side-by-side with students every day. That will no longer be the case," Ms DeVos declared. "The era of 'rule by letter' is over."
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