(WOMENSENEWS)—Here’s some free advice for Betsy DeVos, the billionaire nominee tapped by President Donald Trump to head the Department of Education: Do your homework.
Over the past several years, sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses have become an epidemic. Twenty-three percent of female undergraduate students have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact, according to reports. Not only can this leave the student struggling with physical and emotional damage caused by the assault, survivors continue to be stigmatized. Some colleges also choose to sweep reports of these assaults under the rug.
Given that, it was very troubling that DeVos failed the series of questions she was asked during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing about Title IX, the 1972 law that says that any federally-funded educational program must ensure safety and protection against sexual discrimination. The Trump nominee for secretary of education should have been better prepared for this topic.
Instead, DeVos refused at her hearing to articulate a firm commitment to using Title IX to respond properly to sexual assault on college campuses. Her answers side-stepped the issue and did not signal a pledge to use the weight of federal civil rights law to stop sexual assault at colleges and universities.
Advocates for survivors of sexual abuse are now concerned that DeVos’s tepid answers suggest she is not committed to continuing the expansive view of Title IX put in place during the Obama administration. There’s reason for concern, especially given DeVos’s financial support for groups that have challenged federal policy strengthening the application of Title IX to combat sexual assault on campus. In light of that, her confirmation could lead to the weakening of how we handle these cases.
In 2011, under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released official guidance that imposed mandatory obligations on colleges and universities to combat sexual assault on campuses. It advised school officials that sexual assault should be considered a form of sexual harassment prohibited under Title IX. The measure was long overdue. For years, several colleges were dismissive of sexual assault complaints. Many perpetrators were not punished at all, while others were treated with kid gloves.
The standards from the Office for Civil Rights link the mandatory requirements to the receipt of federal money. More importantly, the new guidance requirements force schools to respond seriously to sexual violence. Among the obligations outlined in the guidelines is the use of a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which means it was more likely than not that sexual violence occurred, in investigating complaints of sexual assault; adherence to protocols for confidential reports; designation of a Title IX coordinator on campus; and notices to students and parents about procedures for filing a complaint. The goal, according to the Department of Education, is to make explicit a school’s responsibility “to respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence against students in accordance with the requirements of Title IX.” The guidelines also offer examples of specific remedies and enforcement strategies to respond to sexual violence.
Critics charge that the push from the federal government runs the risk of propping up investigations by people who are not equipped to handle the issues. They say it undermines due process that should extend to the accused.
Avenue for Relief
However, the Department of Education intervention guidelines for Title IX offer sexual assault survivors an important avenue for relief. There are still due process guarantees in place for accusers, and the requirements in no way strip the ability of local police to investigate charges of sexual assault. The guidelines also acknowledge the reality of young women and men on college campuses who need a safe, accessible alternative to seek help.
Linking heightened Title IX guidelines to federal funding is intended to improve the campus response to sexual violence. Survivors are extremely reluctant to report sexual assault or misconduct. In one survey, for example, more than one-third of students who had been sexually assaulted on campus said they did not report the incident to officials because they did not believe anything would be done.
Given the personal hurdles in place for any student to report sexual assault, we should be taking steps to make it easier to report and seek redress, not refusing to commit to a more responsive process.
There are already more than enough reasons to find DeVos unfit to lead the Department of Education – she is hostile to public schools, ignorant of federal law protecting students with disabilities and open to guns in public schools (particularly if they are needed to fend off grizzly bears). Her refusal to commit to the application of Title IX to combat sexual assault on campus is another disqualifier.
A DeVos confirmation as secretary of education would likely mark a shift in federal policy to one that weakens, rather than strengthens, response to sexual assault on college campuses. Survivors need more tools in their arsenal to fight back, and they need an advocate in the Department of Education who will fight for them. They do not need DeVos.