Louisiana college and university leaders are taking a new look at campus sexual assault regulations after the Trump administration rescinded a policy that critics said was unfair to students accused of attacks.
The change, announced on Sept. 22, rolled back Obama-era guidelines on how allegations are handled, including the crucial standard of proof.
School officials will now be able to use either the "preponderance of evidence" promoted by the Obama administration or the more stringent "clear and convincing evidence" benchmark when students are accused of sexual assault.
Other changes are also designed to revamp the process, including giving school administrators more time to decide cases.
State education leaders and school officials are starting to sift through the new guidelines.
Once they are finalized educators will decide what changes are needed in state law and policies, said Uma Subramanian, deputy commissioner for legal and external affairs for the Louisiana Board of Regents.
"All over the country, campuses are assessing the need for changes at the state level, at the campus level," Subramanian told the Regents last week.
After the Regents' meeting, Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo said the issue is more than a review. "We can't lose sight of the fact this is not just a process ... We are talking about young people's lives."
"We want to make sure it is a balanced approach," Rallo said. "That is where we are going."
Statistics on sexual offenses are kept by individual campuses, not the Board of Regents.
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LSU reported eight in 2016, and Southern University reported two.
A spokesman for LSU said the latest guidelines are being reviewed.
Southern has informed its campuses of the latest changes "and will implement and comply with federal guidelines when they are final," according to a statement from the school.
Critics of the previous policy, spelled out by the Obama administration in a 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, said it was anything but balanced. Deciding guilt in volatile cases on the basis of a "preponderance" of the evidence — a lesser standard than usually applied in criminal matters — and under tight timelines, was unfair to the accused, they said.
Backers, who have raised concerns about the new guidelines, said the earlier policy was needed to ensure that women felt comfortable airing their case in public and getting a fair hearing.
The issue stems from a section of a 1972 federal law known as Title IX.
It covers regulations that govern sexual assault complaint procedures to be followed by colleges and universities.
In 2015 the Legislature enacted a law that required the Board of Regents to develop a uniform policy on sexual misconduct for colleges and universities that complied with state and federal laws.
Regents officials, working with the four college systems, did just that.
Rallo said Regents, at the urging of Gov. John Bel Edwards, met with campus officials on the issue during the past 18 months.
If there was controversy on how sexual assault charges were handled, including complaints of a tilt against the accused, it stayed out of the public.
"The lack of controversy is because we did upfront work," Rallo said.
Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, was president of Northwestern State University before that and chancellor of Bossier Parish Community College earlier still. "The burden of proof has not been an issue for us," Henderson said.
"From my perspective our commitment to providing a safe environment does not change," Henderson said. "It is not driven by federal policy."
The UL System includes nine colleges, including the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.
None of those presidents has asked about the federal change since it was announced on Sept. 22, Henderson said.
However, the landscape is about to change with the new ground rules spelled out by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
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Aside from the more stringent evidence standards, campuses will be able to use mediation as an alternative to a full investigation and adjudication. Mediation was not allowed under the previous rules.
Campuses do not have to allow appeals, or can allow them for only one party.
The earlier rules encouraged colleges and universities to allow appeals for both parties.
Also, school officials will no longer have to finish investigations within 60 days, which critics said boosted chances for a miscarriage of justice.