Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos promised in a speech Thursday at George Mason University in Virginia to replace what she repeatedly referred to as our nation’s “failed system” of campus sexual assault enforcement.
The new approach would most explicitly affect Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 which prohibits sex discrimination in education. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) under President Obama approached Title IX as a protective policy for girls and women against the threat of sexual assault and harassment at schools and universities. In letters to colleges and K-12 schools, OCR officials at the time instructed school administrators to vigorously investigate complaints.
Accusing the Obama administration of weaponizing the OCR, DeVos said the new system will address sexual misconduct on college campuses with “a workable, effective and fair system” that takes into more account the rights of the accused.
“Any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation. But if everything is harassment, then nothing is,” DeVos said on Thursday.
The decision to rescind the Title IX sexual assault guidelines, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, is a clear message that the Trump administration is trying to roll back protections for students who survive campus sexual assault or harassment.
“Title IX is essential to protect each student’s right to equal access to education and an educational experience free from violence,” she explained. “Today’s announcement is another example of a Trump-DeVos agenda that scorns respect for survivors, including Secretary DeVos’s own recent meeting with radical anti-woman activists and the president’s own recorded sexual assault confession during the campaign.”
Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, believes DeVos is sending the “frightening” message to students that the government no longer stands behind them.
“This misguided approach signals a green light to sweep sexual assault further under the rug…It will discourage schools from taking steps to comply with the law — just at the moment when they are finally working to get it right.”
Kimberly Churches, chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women, called DeVos’ announcement “yet another action by this administration that is at direct odds with upholding the civil rights of all Americans.”
While DeVos addressed the approximately 100 guests seated within the university’s Antonin Scalia Law School, named for the late conservative Supreme Court justice, protesters gathered outside chanting, “Stop protecting rapists,” and “Shame on you! Not on us.”
“I was waiting for more actual content,” said Rebecca Harrington, a health educator at the State University of New York (SUNY), who followed the speech on social media in her campus office in Oneonta. “I’m glad she reinforced the fact that rape and sexual assault are horrible things, but her stories were pretty generic.”
Colleges hired health experts like Harrington as well as Title IX compliance officers to help decipher and implement rules, policies and procedures related to sexual misconduct on campus – a pervasive problem across the country.
According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual violence is more prevalent on campus compared to other crimes. College women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than robbed. For example, 11.2 % of all students experience rape or sexual assault on campus. Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4 % of males are victims of these crimes.
Title IX guidelines have not failed, said Harrington, who is also chair of the “know violence” committee, charged with preventing and reporting sexual assault on campus. “We now have survivors coming forward to get the support they need to stay in school and graduate. We have health and policy experts helping to guide us through the process.”
Within some school systems like SUNY, students, faculty and staff are afforded the opportunity to take mandatory training on sex abuse and harassment, and to attend conferences and workshops.
“I’m lucky I work on a campus that is very open-minded and informed on this issue,” Harrington says. “But sexual assault is still an under-reported crime, even here.”
For more information and resources on parent and student activism recommendations, the 2017 NCWGE Title IX report, K-12 family accounts, select media reports, and many other practical tools, visit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.