Public comments reopen for DeVos' campus sexual assault rules — but only for one day

Department of Education's regulatory proposal has set off intense debate.
Image: Meghan Downey, 22, a recent graduate from the College of William & Mary, reacts outside an auditorium after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke
Meghan Downey, 22, reacts outside an auditorium after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke about proposed changes to Title IX on Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Virginia, campus. Jacquelyn Martin / AP file

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By Erik Ortiz

The federal government is giving an extra day for public comments on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' proposal to overhaul campus sexual assault rules after a website glitch last month may have turned people away.

A Federal Register notice said new comments can be submitted Friday — either online, postmarked or hand-delivered — for the regulatory proposal that has led to intense debate.

The initial 60-day public comment period ended Jan. 30 with more than 104,300 messages and letters.

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The decision to temporarily receive new comments was made out of "an abundance of caution," the notice said, after reports that related websites appeared to be down. In some cases, advocacy groups said there was an alert on the website erroneously informing people that the comment period had closed a day earlier, when it was still open.

The move to reopen comments comes as a surprise, but is one that Jess Davidson, executive director of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus, said is necessary.

"This technical error repeats this administration's pattern of harm that disproportionately hurts survivors and other communities that face systemic barriers," Davidson said in a statement. "We pointed out to the department they were violating the law by not giving access to survivors to participate in our democratic processes."

The majority of comments received appear to oppose the Education Department's reworking of the federal guidelines known as Title IX, which prohibit gender discrimination, including sexual assault, on college campuses as well as in primary and secondary schools.

Advocates for students accused of misconduct have argued that some of the Title IX guidance under the Obama administration was unfair to alleged perpetrators — prompting DeVos to rescind the measure and pledge that the Education Department would embark on a "workable, effective and fair system."

But advocates for sexual assault survivors and some civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have pushed back on the changes that they believe will make students less likely to come forward and report abuse.

The ACLU said it hopes the extra day will allow those who were previously unable to submit comments a "meaningful opportunity to do so," but still has concerns about the short notice.