MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
f you just read the headline in the September 7 edition of The New York Times, you might think the secretary of education is merely performing a harmless revision of governmental regulations: "Betsy DeVos Says She Will Rewrite Rules on Campus Sex Assault." However, this header hardly represents the immoral action of DeVos in announcing that she will ease up on requiring colleges to thoroughly and consistently investigate allegations of sexual assault on college campuses.
The Times begins the article with this account of a speech DeVos gave to students who belong to the Federalist Society, composed of conservative lawyers and law school attendees:
Saying that the Obama administration's approach to policing campus sexual assault had "failed too many students," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said on Thursday that her administration would rewrite the rules in an effort to protect both the victims of sexual assault and the accused.
Ms. DeVos did not say what changes she had in mind. But in a strongly worded speech, she made clear she believed that in an effort to protect victims, the previous administration had gone too far and forced colleges to adopt procedures that sometimes deprived accused students of their rights.
"Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach," she said in an address at George Mason University in suburban Arlington, Va. "With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today."
The actual government regulation in question is a 2011 letter clarifying Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. Even though the Times acknowledged criticism of DeVos's announcement, it did so in a manner that barely included the extent of the problem of sexual assault on campuses:
A 2015 survey of students at 27 schools, commissioned by the Association of American Universities, found that nearly one in four women had complained of sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Advocates for victims seized on the study, but as with similar reports, it was criticized by some for overstating the problem, and even its authors acknowledged that it had limitations.
Though Ms. DeVos said she believed that accused students were often mistreated, she also said that victims were being ill-served by a quasi-judicial process that lacked the sophistication required for such sensitive matters....
But her remarks focused more heavily on the young men who, she said, were denied due process in campus proceedings, sometimes attempting suicide....
She referred to campus sexual misconduct hearings as "kangaroo courts" that forced administrators to act as "judge and jury." Referring to scores of lawsuits filed by punished students, she said: "Survivors aren't well served when they are re-traumatized with appeal after appeal because the failed system failed the accused. And no student should be forced to sue their way to due process."
The Times' coverage also devotes significant space to the concerns of advocates of male students who are accused of sexual abuse -- and, like the Trump administration, presents the problem of sexual assault investigation as simply an issue of two sides with differing interests. Rewire offered a better approach, titling its article, "DeVos to Use 'Both Sides' Approach to Campus Rape." In the grotesque hall of mirrors that is the Trump administration, DeVos's remarks (arguing that those accused of rape currently receive too little protection) bring to mind Trump's claim that "both sides" were responsible for the violence in Charlottesville precipitated by white nationalists.
Rewire provides a more accurate portrayal of how DeVos is providing license and solace to perpetrators of sexual assault. Here is one telling example of how Rewire provides a different take on a study the Times referred to (see above):
One in four undergraduate women are subjected to sexual assault or sexual misconduct by force, according to the American Association of Universities (AAU). But reports of sexual assault are as low as 5 percent, the AAU noted, largely due to victims' fears of coming forward.
The Times cast doubt on the study, while Rewire pointed out that, if anything, the study's tally was probably on the low side. This is due to many weak campus regulations, social shaming, fear of retaliation and legal issues -- among other impediments -- that survivors of sexual violence face on college campuses.
Rewire also provides some recent historical context to DeVos's position:
This summer, Jackson, DeVos' civil rights chief, faced a hail of criticism for suggesting most sexual assault allegations were lies. Jackson told the New York Times that "90 percent" of campus sexual-assault complaints "fall into the category of 'we were both drunk,' 'we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'"
Jackson apologized for her comments, but has made other comments on rape allegations, calling the women who accused President Trump of sexual assault during the 2016 presidential election "fake victims."
This week, Feministing reported that 100,000 signatures were gathered calling on the Department of Education not to move backwards on the practice of colleges vigorously investigating and preventing sexual violence. Feministing observed,
DeVos and Trump -- a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women -- are about to make it even easier for predatory men like him to do the same thing....
Title IX, a decades old civil rights law, requires schools to "promptly and equitably" address sexual harassment (including sexual assault and rape) on campus because it's a huge barrier to equal educational opportunity. When students are assaulted, they often see their grades drop, struggle with PTSD, or have to drop classes they share with a perpetrator. Without support from their schools, many survivors have to take leaves of absence, transfer, or even drop out entirely. That's why Title IX requires schools to investigate reports of sexual violence and give student survivors accommodations they need to continue their education — support that schools are uniquely positioned to provide, like being moved into a different dorm so they don't live in the same building as their rapists, or an extension on a paper due the week after an assault.
It is an abomination to make it easier for perpetrators to get away with sexual misconduct at any age. It is particularly abhorrent that a governmental department would eliminate regulations aimed at investigating and preventing sexual assault and harassment -- and hold the abusers accountable. DeVos's changes to Title IX will have real consequences and real victims. There is no "other side" to sexual violence. It cannot be tolerated on college campuses or anywhere in society.