New interim federal guidelines from the Trump administration won't affect how Berkshire County colleges handle sexual misconduct — at least not in the near future.

Officials at Williams College, Berkshire Community College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts plan to keep their current policies in the wake of a much-maligned interim Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct released by the Department of Education in September.

The guidelines allow sexual misconduct cases to be handled in mediation and give colleges more leeway concerning evidence standards.

Colleges will now be able to utilize a "clear and convincing" evidence standard for sexual misconduct cases. Under Obama-era guidance, colleges were required to utilize the lowest standard of proof, known as "preponderance of the evidence."

The department's press release announcing the new guidelines denounced previous policies, including 2011's "Dear Colleague" letter on campus sexual assault, saying that they created a system that lacked basic elements of due process and failed to ensure fairness on college campuses.

Advocates nationwide have scorned the latest changes, claiming they favor the rights of accused perpetrators of sexual assault over victims and roll back significant advances in the effort to adequately punish those who commit these crimes.

Others have said the changes are necessary in light of a national climate that seeks justice for victims at the expense of basic civil rights for the accused.

In recent years, a flurry of students disciplined for sexual assault have made claims of a lack of due process in civil cases against their former colleges.

Some were successful.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has also emphasized the need for impartiality in the disciplinary process.

The department's guidelines do not represent a final policy decision.

In the coming months, the department plans to engage in rulemaking on schools' Title IX responsibilities arising from cases of sexual misconduct, according to the department's press release.

"It's a nine-to-18-month rule-making process," said Deborah Cote, vice president for human resources & affirmative action officer at Berkshire Community College. "We're following our policies. We're kind of hanging tight and waiting to see what the final rule-making will result in."

The college already has strong policies concerning sexual misconduct through the Massachusetts Community College Council, she said.

The council includes all 15 community colleges in the state.

"At this point, we have no plans to change our existing policy," said Meg Bossong, director of sexual assault prevention and response at Williams College.

MCLA's sexual violence policy comes from guidance through the state Board of Higher Education.

"Despite what comes out of the Trump administration, that plan's not going to change for us," said Bernadette Alden, director of marketing and communications at MCLA.

'It is our problem'

There's more sexual misconduct in the Berkshire County than some people think, said B Bradburd, director of operations and communications for the Elizabeth Freeman Center.

"Some people think domestic and sexual violence are just a big city problem," he said in an email. "We know from firsthand experience that sexual assault happens here in Berkshire County, that it is our problem."

In 2016, the center provided counseling and advocacy for 230 sexual assault survivors, and received 142 hotline calls related to sexual violence.

"Having worked with so many survivors of sexual assault, I think we have a deep understanding of the impact of trauma on people's lives," Bradburd said.

For survivors of sexual misconduct in college, the social repercussions of the assault can be shattering, he said in the email.

"Both in terms of the day-to-day — how am I going to get to class, how am I going to avoid seeing my perpetrator in the dining hall ... and then sort of the wider culture," he said, "what is the narrative being crafted about being on campus?"

The narrative crafted about campus sexual misconduct encompasses things like whether school administration understands that consent is not based on whether the person assaulted fought back, or if they knew the perpetrator beforehand, he said.

In rural places like Berkshire County, survivors of sexual assault who are attending college can face challenges associated with living everyday life in the same area as the person who assaulted them.

"If you go to school in Williamstown or North Adams or even Pittsfield, there's only so many coffee shops," said Bossong of Williams College. "There's only so many gyms."

Title IX reframed

How colleges handle cases of sexual misconduct is subject to the requirements of Title IX — a federal law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

This includes virtually all public and private colleges in the country.

Discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Besides higher education, Title IX also applies to approximately 16,500 local school districts and 7,000 postsecondary institutions, as well as charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries, museums and vocational rehabilitation agencies.

Under a federal law passed in 1990 now known as the Clery Act, schools are also required to report campus crime statistics as a condition of participating in federal student aid programs.

These statistics must include reported incidents of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence and stalking.

Since the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, the focus of Title IX had been on the concrete impacts of campus sexual assaults on educational civil rights, Bossong said.

But with the department's new guidelines, Title IX is being reframed.

"Title IX is being reimagined as a due process [measure] for respondents, not as a measure to halt harassment in educational settings and prevent its recurrence," Bossong said.

Particular elements of the new guidelines also contradict prior guidance, including the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter and 2001 guidance from the Department of Education under former President George W. Bush, Bossong said.

The 2001 guidance prohibited mediation in sexual assault cases, she said.

But the new guidelines allow for it.

"Mediation is not appropriate for campus sexual violence or harassment cases," Bossong said. "Mediation sends a message that sexual violence or domestic violence or stalking is a misunderstanding."

But for most cases that come before colleges, that's not the case, she said.

When schools have clear and consistent guidelines for handling sexual misconduct, due process is granted to all involved parties, she said.

"You can have clear, transparent, consistent processes, and they're not going to be like the court system," she said. "They're not meant to be like the court system."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at, at @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter and 413-496-6247.