by Dana Laurens
In the same week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump Administration’s decision to repeal DACA, the Department of Education (ED) announced their vague, but clear, intentions to undo yet another critical protection put in place under the Obama Administration for a vulnerable population. As with DACA, the Administration is set on eradicating Obama’s policies without any specific, let alone credible, proposal for replacement. It is only now, as the current Administration tries to undo everything good put in place by its predecessor, that some people are realizing how much the Obama Administration did to better our country.
Earlier this summer, ED called for public comments on all regulations that was initially due August 21, previously written about here. That deadline has since been extended an additional month, and with two weeks left in the new public comment window, ED has decided to circumvent the process. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), “a landslide of comments to [ED] supporting current Title IX guidance” has been submitted already. Perhaps ED doesn’t like the feedback it’s getting, so yesterday’s press conference at the Atonin Scalia Law School was the Department’s way of making it known that those comments would be ignored. It’s hard to draw any other conclusion.
I try to maintain a glimmer of optimism during the extremely chaotic tenure of the Trump Administration, so I felt hopeful when Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, started off her Title IX remarks on an upbeat note. DeVos said, “Title IX has helped to make clear that educational institutions have a responsibility to protect every student’s right to learn in a safe environment and to prevent unjust deprivations of that right…a responsibility I take seriously, and it is a responsibility that the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights takes seriously.” DeVos even praised the Obama Administration at one point, declaring, “we’re here today because the previous administration helped elevate this issue in American public life. They listened to survivors, who have brought this issue out from the backrooms of student life offices and into the light of day.”
About halfway into her remarks, DeVos stated that she recently hosted a summit to better understand all perspectives. That’s about the time the hope I had started to disappear. DeVos went on to list a cadre of issues she referred to as the prior administration’s failures. That list includes: Washington burdening schools with “increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines that even lawyers find difficult to understand and navigate,” and failures like “hundreds upon hundreds of cases in the Department’s Office of Civil Rights.” DeVos mentioned “dozens upon dozens of lawsuits filed in courts across the land by students punished for sexual misconduct.”
As the speech went on, it became clearer that what DeVos meant by “all perspectives” was really that more needed to be done to defend the rights of the accused, of colleges, of her overburdened Office of Civil Rights – basically anybody but the survivors themselves who were calling for her to stand up and enforce the law.
Evidenced by the numerous hand-picked stories DeVos chose to share, certainly mistakes are made and individuals are sometimes wrongfully accused. But, the statistics are evident – a report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center finds “the majority of sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never even reported to the police.” Meanwhile, “the prevalence of false reporting cases of sexual violence is low,” between 2 and 10%, “yet when survivors come forward, many face scrutiny or encounter barriers.”
Why then did DeVos give more examples in defense of the falsely accused in her speech, as if this was the norm or the problem at hand? Because by doing so, DeVos perpetuated the very misconceptions about false reporting rates that have direct and devastating consequences like deterring victims from reporting their sexual assault.
By stating that “schools exist—first and foremost—to educate,” the Education Secretary fails to realize that students who don’t feel safe cannot learn.
Fortunately, there are other groups like ours at the ready who will continue the just and necessary fight to uphold the principles of Title IX and other civil rights protections for our most vulnerable citizens. In a note put out shortly after DeVos’ speech, NWLC wrote: “If the agency issues regulations inconsistent with the statute, we are prepared to take legal action to challenge this administration’s continued mistreatment of and skepticism of survivors…Current regulations and guidance already ensure a fair process for all students involved in a complaint. If schools are falling down on the job, the answer is to enforce the regulations, not undermine them.”
We wholeheartedly support those principles both as a call to action against ideologically-driven and misinformed policies and because they remind us that Secretary DeVos’ views are only part of the problem here. The reason Title IX guidance on sexual assault exists is that far too many schools, without outside pressure and mandates, are loathe to admit that sexual assaults happen on their campuses, let alone elevate their occurrence by mounting sound and thorough investigations. We will work with advocates on all fronts to ensure victims’ rights are protected in Washington, DC and college campuses all over the country.