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September 08, 2017

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. DeVos declared that "the era of 'rule by letter' is over" as she announced plans to change the way colleges and university handle allegations of sexual violence on campus. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Trump administration announced on Thursday it is rolling back Obama-era guidelines mandating how colleges handle sexual assault and rape investigations. Survivors and colleges are grappling with what that means on campus.

When Alyssa Peterson was a sophomore at Georgetown University, she says she was out at a party with her friends when another student she trusted invited her back to his apartment.

"He said, like, 'Oh, let's go make more of a mixer,’” Peterson recalled. “I went into his apartment and he raped me."

Peterson went to the hospital, but she didn't feel comfortable going to school administrators.

"I was provided with medical help, but I didn't know what my rights were," she said.

On campus, Peterson says she felt isolated.

"I had to see the person who had raped me,” she said. “He friended me on Facebook. I couldn't concentrate in classes."

In 2011, the Obama administration issued what's called a Dear Colleague letter that changed the landscape for sexual assault cases on campus. It required schools to investigate sexual misconduct complaints within 60 days, even if local prosecutors don't file criminal charges. 

That's when Peterson says she realized she had rights and the university had certain obligations to protect her.

"That was the most empowering thing for me,” Peterson said. “I felt so alone and I didn't know that there were other people going through the same thing and that the federal government had our back."

The Education Department announced that hundreds of schools were under federal investigation for failing to adequately handle allegations of sexual assault. In response, colleges adopted new policies, effectively lowering the burden of proof for finding someone guilty, and added administrative staff to handle sexual assault cases like Peterson's or risked losing federal funding.

Related: Harvard Creates Central Office To Investigate Sexual Assault

Now, the Trump administration says it wants to rescind the Obama administration's Dear Colleague letter. This fall the Education Department will take public comments before revising the sexual assault regulations next year.

Speaking at George Mason University in Virginia, Secretary Betsy DeVos said for too long the Education Department has issued policy letters from the desks of un-elected political appointees.

“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.”

Survivor's advocates are wary about what this could mean going forward.

"When I hear her talking about potentially opening up the regulations and changing them, I get very nervous because they're already perfect," said Wendy Murphy, a professor at New England Law in Boston.

Despite DeVos's decision, Murphy is confident advocates will hold administrators accountable.

“DeVos can’t un-ring the bell in the minds of all the women and lawyers…around the country,” she said. “No matter how many times she rips up the Dear Colleague letter."

Not everyone is critical of DeVos's decision to revisit sexual assault guidelines.

Terry Hartle is a senior advisor with the American Council on Education, which represents hundreds of colleges across the country.

Hartle says the Obama administration's guidance went too far.

"Guidance is supposed to mean advice,” he said. “The Obama administration, however, treated that as legally binding requirements.”

Hartle says before the Obama administration's Dear Colleague letter many schools did not treat these issues as seriously as they should have.

“The Obama administration guidance really forced colleges and university to look long and hard at the way that they dealt with sexual violence on campus and almost every campus put new policies and procedures in place,” he said. “That will not change."

Local universities, from Harvard to Bentley, say their commitment to protections for all students is as strong as ever.

For Alyssa Peterson, though, rescinding the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague letter is personal.

"That document for many people like me… that was the first time we learned about our rights,” she said. “I'm terrified that schools will take this opportunity to backslide on their obligation to survivors because the federal government is no longer interested in protecting our access to education."

Today, Peterson is a 25-year-old student at Yale Law School, where she serves as a policy and advocacy coordinator at Know Your IX, a survivor's rights group. After she graduates, she hopes to give survivors the tools they need to hold schools accountable.

WGBH's Esteban Bustillos contributed to this report.

Greater Boston: Trump Administration Revisits Sexual Assault Guidelines

In May, WGBH's On Campus sat down with departing Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson to discuss sexual assault prevention in the Trump era.

Title IX, increasing access and success, betsy devos, higher ed, sexual assault

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