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Obama Championed The Fight Against Sexual Assaults. Will Trump?


And let's consider one issue that will likely fall to Betsy DeVos. She is the Republican activist and philanthropist chosen by Donald Trump to be education secretary. The question is how she would address a long-running debate over campus sexual assault. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: For the past five years, the Obama administration has championed the issue of sexual assault, driving up public awareness and cracking down on colleges that don't take misconduct seriously. Trump has made no pronouncements on what his administration would do on the issue, but positions taken by some of his advisers and Trump's response to accusations of his own misconduct has got advocates worried.

LEXI MCMENAMIN: Oh, gosh. It sucks. It sucks a lot right now.

SMITH: Fordham College senior and sexual assault survivor Lexi McMenamin says Trump has already done damage to the cause by sending exactly the wrong message, first by brushing off his comments about grabbing women's genitals as no big deal and then by disparaging and threatening the women who have accused him of sexual assault.

MCMENAMIN: It's like my rapist did the same exact thing that Donald Trump is doing right now, just turning it inside me being crazy, and it all just being, like, boys being boys. And it just feels like a million little pins stuck in my side.

SMITH: On a more concrete policy level, advocates worry a Trump administration will close or reduce funding for the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, which has been driving the crackdown on campus sexual assault. Some Republicans and Trump campaign officials have blasted the office, saying it's gone too far and needs to be reined in.

SEJAL SINGH: That would be disastrous for survivors and would make campuses even less safe than they are today.

SMITH: Sejal Singh, with the advocacy group Know Your IX, says the government already has a backlog of hundreds of cases, and survivors often wait years to have their complaints investigated. Any reduction, she says, will seriously undercut enforcement.

SINGH: If the administration is willing to look the other way on campus sexual assault, we really do risk going back to the days when schools would routinely discourage survivors from reporting, would refuse to investigate reports. And they do nothing to support survivors and keep campuses safe.

SMITH: Advocates also worry a Trump administration will make it harder for alleged victims to prove their case. The Obama administration has instructed colleges that allegations don't have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. They just have to be found to be more likely than not. Republicans and the party platform have criticized that low standard of evidence, saying it unfairly favors alleged victims. Attorney Andrew Miltenberg made a similar argument in a federal lawsuit, and he's now hoping a new administration will agree.

ANDREW MILTENBERG: There's a renewed sense of hope that perhaps Donald Trump will push back against prosecuting these cases in what I consider an extremely draconian manner.

SMITH: Push back maybe, but campus security consultant Daniel Carter says a complete rollback would not be possible given the broad sympathy that's developed around the issue in recent years.

S. DANIEL CARTER: The cultural changes have already taken place. The statutory changes have already taken place with the bipartisan, bicameral support in Congress. And there may be challenges certainly, but you can't put the genie back in the bottle at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No means no. Yes means yes.

SMITH: Indeed, the reality of a Trump presidency is already galvanizing student activists, like these at the University of Maryland. So even if a Trump administration were to ease up pressure from government, they say schools would not be totally off the hook. Campuses would still face the threat of students taking their complaints to civil courts and to the court of public opinion. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.

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