By Victoria Lavelle
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rolled back Title IX guidelines for campus sexual assault, effectively undermining the long-standing protections for young female college students while sweeping allegations of rape and sexual misconduct under the carpet.
In a shocking announcement last month, DeVos revealed plans to review the 2011 Obama-era Title IX policy that spells out a school’s responsibility for handling alleged reports of sexual misconduct. She called the Obama administration policy “a failed system that overtly pushes academic institutions to overreach and doesn’t go far enough to protect those accused” of sexual wrongdoing.
However, DeVos’ recommendation that schools need to do more to protect rapists and sexual predators is un-fathomable.
Alarming statistics in three separate surveys provided by the Rape Abuse National Network, the Washington Post-Kaiser Foundation, and the Association of American Universities (AAU) indicate 20 percent of young female college students are the victims of sexual improprieties, and 23 percent are at risk.
The data collected from the surveys are concrete evidence that the government’s decision to retract the expansion of Title IX protections is a disregard to the well-being of female college students. Turning back the wheel of justice on campus sexual enforcement is equivalent to doing nothing at all to combat the problem, while suggesting that accused rapists and sexual predators need more protections is an absurd injustice.
Title IX is a federal law established in 1972 that prohibits sex and gender discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Former President Barack Obama expanded the law to protect victims of sexual assault by providing victims the assurance of a safe campus environment after coming forward with their complaints.
Obama’s expansion was called “The Dear Colleague Letter” and it held campuses in violation of the order accountable by withholding federal funding. Colleges were more likely to take complains of sexual assault seriously because losing those federal dollars would have financially crippled Ivy League universities.
On Sept. 22, the Department of Education (DOE) officially nullified Obama’s Title IX policy releasing a temporary outline of recommendations for how schools should respond to reports of sexual violence moving forward. Furthermore, it allows colleges to adopt their own procedures even though DeVos admitted school administrators aren’t experts in lawmaking or law enforcement.
“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve the victim only creates more victims,” DeVos told an invite-only audience at George Mason University. “A better way means we shouldn’t demand anyone to be something they are not. Students, families, and school administrators are generally not lawyers and they’re not judges. We shouldn’t force people to become something they are not just in order for justice to be served, and we need to be more precise in the definition of sexual misconduct.”
The announcement was immediately met with scrutiny by advocates for women’s rights, victims of sexual assault, and survivors who support the previous Title IX policy. Twenty-nine U.S. senators delivered an open letter to the DOE opposing DeVos’ actions and calling her decision “a step in the wrong direction,” considering the nation’s epidemic of campus sexual violence.
Supporters of DeVos’ Title IX changes argue that the previous mandate caused the DOE to place unfair pressure from the federal government upon colleges and universities. They believe those actions from the federal government tilt the scale of campus justice regarding sexual assault cases in the favor of victims by imposing on the rights of the accused.
In fact, a group of professors at Harvard Law School studied the previous policy expansion in 2015 and concluded that the ordinance stripped away “the fair and due process” guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution by restricting the ability for those accused to share a detailed account of their version of the story.
During the new policy roll out, DeVos explained the new guidelines are open for public scrutiny and input, so once again Harvard Law School announced they are starting to review the new federal Title IX guidelines.
Meanwhile, more politicians are weighing in.
“Title IX protections play an important role to ensure the safety of students on college campuses,” Congressman Patrick Meehan (R-PA) expressed in an official statement via email. “As a prosecutor, I saw firsthand the emotional devastation that visits victims of sexual assault. A system must enable victims to establish control over their path to justice and recovery. As importantly, a system must accord appropriate due process to the victim and the accused. It is not always an easy balance to find. Any changes to Title IX guidance should improve – not roll back – efforts to end sexual violence and clarify the obligations of schools. Sexual assault shatters the lives, so there’s more we can do to prevent it on college campuses. I urge Secretary DeVos to keep the victims of sexual assault foremost in her mind as this process unfolds.”
Meehan is right to be concerned.
The Criminal Justice Systems Statistics annual report from 2016 reflects the vast majority of sexual misconduct occurrences go unreported and unpunished. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) annual report found 70 percent of victims who are attacked do not come forward out of mistrust for authorities and fear of shame, blame, and ridicule.
The organization immediately responded to DeVos’ Title IX changes on their website: “We are deeply disappointed in the decision to rescind existing policies on campus sexual violence, as announced today.”
Critics say DeVos Title IX policy provides less clarity for campus authorities to handle accusations of sexual assault in a serious nature, and offers nothing to combat the rising number of sexual crimes reported at colleges and universities.
DeVos’ decision to rescind student protections nationwide set an unsettling tone among the nations collegiate, especially to the one in five female victims and survivors of sexual predators. Her actions are solid proof that she’s more concerned about dissolving protections, rather than shielding victims from sexual assault.
Kourtney Gould, a mathematics and natural science major at DCCC, says the Trump administration needs to stop trying to fix things that aren’t broken.
“For heaven’s sake, wasn’t Trump recorded on a hot microphone bragging about groping women,” asked Gould, recollecting the Access Hollywood tape released in June 2016. “His lewd comments were [an admission of] sexual assault, so it raises serious questions about the motivation behind the Education Department’s sudden changes to our Title IX protections.”
Candice Jackson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, demonstrated just how unfit and clueless the agency is regarding campus sexual violence. During a N.Y. Times interview, Jackson carelessly insinuated that 90 percent of all college sexual assault accusations are made by drunk or disgruntled ex-girlfriends who got dumped, then six months later come forward to report a crime.
How someone with her level of ignorance finds a way into a federal government agency is beyond comprehension, and it should rattle every American to the core. Even though Jackson later apologized for her flippant remarks, it still leaves little doubt as to why the U.S. Commissions on Civil Rights has launched a two-year investigation into practices at Trump’s Department of Education.
The investigation’s findings will be reported directly to Congress for review in a time when our president is already facing an unprecedented number of probes.
In short, the new guidelines do little to protect a victim’s right to be treated fairly on a college campus after reporting a sexual assault. The accused are now permitted to remain actively enrolled in college, and campus authorities can drag their feet resolving matters until after the accused have graduated.
This puts victims of sexual assault into a vulnerable position and it is likely to discourage them from coming forward to report sexual violence. The result may be fewer sexual assault complaints annually, but unreported cases will increase. That’s hardly a solution to combat the epidemic that plagues our nations college youth.
Additionally, it makes way for colleges to return to the days of prioritizing a college’s reputation over students victimized by sexual assault.
Though Obama’s legislation was not a blanket solution to prevent campus sexual misconduct, it was a step in the right direction to help reduce the staggering number of students who fell prey to rape and non-consensual sexual advancements each year.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration pushes forward on what appears to be a relentless mission to dismantle the protections and rights of Obama legacy, without any goal to combat the sexual misconduct epidemic plaguing the nation’s college campuses.
In America, we elect our presidents with the hope they will do their best to protect us and represent the very best in us. Trump has perpetuated some of the most disrespectful and abhorrent behaviors towards women, including publicly shaming alleged victims of his own sexual disobediences.
In normal times we would be appalled and outraged, yet we’ve become numb and willing to compromise our American values because, in the Trump-era, instability and oppression have become the status quo.
Contact Victoria Lavelle at firstname.lastname@example.org