On behalf of college women whose reports of sexual violence were long disregarded, we call on U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos not to roll back valuable federal protections.
Women’s campus safety remains far too often in jeopardy, as evidenced close to home by the enormity of the Baylor sexual assault tragedy and a 2017 University of Texas survey that found 15 percent of female undergrads at the Austin flagship said they had been raped.
Despite similar reports nationwide, the Trump administration is considering nullifying 2011 guidelines that cover how schools must handle sexual assault allegations.
That guidance, issued by President Obama’s Education Department, aimed to clarify obligations that institutions must meet under Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funds.
Since then, the number of sexual violence cases under review by the department’s Office for Civil Rights has jumped from 55 total in May 2014 to 344 reports involving 242 schools as of this month, according to the Washington Post.
While opponents condemn the 2011 guidelines for pushing a lower standard of proof in campus disciplinary hearings than is used in criminal trials, sexual assault survivors and their advocates credit the changes with forcing schools to correct long-standing deficiencies.
Legal experts have suggested that it’s not the guidance itself but the incorrect interpretation of it by some schools that has resulted in unfair outcomes.
As DeVos considers next steps, she met Thursday with a panel of nine survivors of sexual assault and then with an equal-sized group – seven students and two parents – who say the accused are rarely heard from in this Title IX debate.
While the system must ensure fair treatment for all parties, the scales too often were tipped at many universities against the sexual assault survivors. Documented reports show that women’s stories were habitually swept under the rug or that administrations reacted by blaming the female students themselves.
Comments by DeVos’ top civil rights appointee on the eve of the Thursday “listening sessions” have further chilled sexual assault survivors’ hopes that the 2011 protections will survive.
Candice Jackson told The New York Times that 90 percent of accusations are the result of drunken and regretted sex, not rape. In a follow-up apology, she described her words as “flippant.”
Such disrespectful language by the person charged with ensuring enforcement of civil rights in the nation’s schools is staggering. Flippant words don’t belong in any conversation about sexual assault.
Not to mention Jackson’s out-of-thin-air “90 percent.” While, regrettably, cases of false allegations have occasionally occurred, national studies show the number to be only between 2 and 8 percent. Suffering was certainly real for those falsely accused students – and their voices deserve to be a part of this conversation – but DeVos’ office must beware of an outsized reaction to them.
Jackson’s remarks are not only damaging to the many women whose trauma has not been taken seriously but also undercut the credibility of DeVos’ office as it moves forward on this controversial issue.
We’re encouraged that DeVos is considering a national “listening tour” before making a decision. The Education Department would be wise to turn its energies to helping schools understand how to fairly adjudicate allegations rather than making changes that would let them off the hook on sexual violence.