President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a roundtable discussion on the Federal Commission on School Safety report, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, in Washington. Credit: Evan Vucci | AP

The federal government is proposing big changes to how colleges handle reports of sexual assault. After an extension, Wednesday is the deadline for experts and the public to submit their comments on the draft rules, which they can do here.

Betsy DeVos, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, has proposed sweeping changes to school disciplinary proceedings, set out under the federal gender anti-discrimination law Title IX, that would grant more protections to students alleged to have committed misconduct and ease up on oversight of schools.

People who work with victims of sexual assault say that the proposal would provide fewer protections for victims and make it less likely they’ll qualify for a Title IX investigation. Others, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, say the proposal will increase “fundamental fairness.”

These Title IX proceedings are separate from criminal proceedings that can send someone to prison and instead look at whether students alleged to have violated school rules should remain on campus.

[Step by step, 2 women detail Maine university’s failings in their rape cases]

The proposed changes would allow colleges and universities to adopt a higher standard of evidence in deciding sexual assault cases, narrow the definition of sexual assault, and require institutions to investigate only if certain people on campus learn of the alleged assault and only if it happens on school property or during an official function.

They would prohibit questions about an alleged victim’s sexual history, something Maine has already banned in criminal proceedings, and allow attorneys to cross-examine alleged victims and perpetrators during a live hearing. Whereas past guidance said an institution’s response must be “reasonable,” the proposed rules reduce the liability of schools by allowing them to respond in ways that are simply not “deliberately indifferent.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking how many investigations the federal government has opened against colleges for possibly mishandling reports of sexual assault. It shows there was a sharp increase in investigations under the Obama administration and a decrease under President Donald Trump. There have been no investigations at schools in Maine.

The full proposed rules are available here.

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...