Yesterday, a group of campus sexual assault survivors and their advocates met with DeVos to voice their support for the current interpretation of Title IX. We spoke with one of them. Jess Davidson, managing director of the organization End Rape On Campus, was present at the event—and she spoke to WomensHealthMag.com afterward.
A ‘Concerning’ Message
The majority of the 90-minute meeting consisted of DeVos listening to survivors’ stories, says Davidson. “We wanted a clear sense of if she was committed [to upholding Title IX protections], and unfortunately, I don’t think we’re there yet,” she says. “She also said this will not be the last time she meets with survivors of sexual violence, and we will hold her to that.” DeVos has herself admitted that she has limited experience interacting with survivors, so as Davidson points out, it will take more than a mere 90-minute meeting for her to truly educate herself on their experiences.
The aforementioned Title IX guidelines, put in place by the Obama administration and known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, require all colleges receiving federal funding to use the lowest standard of evidentiary proof in these cases (much lower than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for criminal convictions). They also allow accusers to appeal not-guilty findings and to expedite the proceedings within 60 days—and they discourage the cross examination of accusers, as reported by the Washington Post.
“The ‘Dear Colleague’ letter makes clear for survivors and for the accused what the campuses’ responsibilities are to both parties,” says Davidson. “It holds schools accountable and gives students a tool so that they themselves can hold the schools accountable.” If the current administration were to reverse these guidelines, Davidson says, students’ rights on this issue would be unclear and challenging to enforce. Additionally, the administration would be sending a leadership signal to colleges that it’s okay to sweep these cases under the rug and stay silent when it comes to sexual assault, she says.
Problematic views toward sexual assault seem to be pervasive in the Department of Education, says Davidson. In an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, the head of the education department’s Office of Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, implied that the majority of sexual-assault accusations made on college campuses today are done so invalidly. “Rather, the accusations—90 percent of them—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,’” she told the Times.
Davidson says she finds this deeply troubling coming from someone who is supposed to be representing the rights of students. “When officials don’t take their claims seriously, it feeds into a culture that has victims saying, ‘Oh, well he didn’t drug me, so it’s not that serious’ or ‘He didn’t put me in the hospital, so it’s not assault,’” she says. “Having government officials, regardless of party, participate in that is unacceptable.” Although Jackson apologized for her comments, Davidson is still adamant that victims should not be represented by someone seeming to dismiss their claims.
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In addition to meeting with survivors, the Secretary also scheduled meetings with advocacy groups for the “wrongly” accused. Among these groups was Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), a nonprofit founded by mothers of sons who were falsely accused of sexual misconduct in college that views the guidelines as “one-sided,” according to Time. Another group that was included is SAVE (Stop Abusive And Violent Environments), whose website is on a list of misogynist groups compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Coalition For Men, a non-profit that aims to “free men” from being “stereotyped as oppressors.” These groups claim that current Title IX policy, specifically the guidelines outlined in the “Dear Colleague” letter, make institutions more inclined to find the accused guilty.
In her statement following Thursday’s meeting, DeVos said that current policies are failing and that “all stories should be heard,” as reported by USA Today. “No student should be the victim of sexual assault,” she said. “No student should feel unsafe. No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel that the scales are tipped against him or her. We need to get this right.”
Davidson is troubled by the move to give equal time and attention to survivors of assault alongside groups affiliated with men’s rights activism. “As an advocate for the survivors, I want the accused to have a voice as well, but this sends a message that sexual assault and false accusation should be of equal concern,” says Davidson. “Statistically, that’s not true. It’s estimated that false accusations are made in 2 to 8 percent of cases. When you compare that to one in every five women, one in 16 men, and worse statistics for women of color and the LGBTQ community [are sexually assaulted], that is concerning.”
What You Can Do
In order to keep today’s conversation going, there are a number of actions you can take. “I think that until Secretary DeVos indicates that she will roll back Title IX, the first thing we can do is let her know we want it enforced as is,” says Davidson. You can do that by tweeting your concerns with the hashtag #DearBetsy, calling your congress person, or, if you’re a survivor, by sharing your story. “Secretary DeVos did say in her meeting that she’s interested in meeting with more survivors, and we strongly encourage you to request a meeting with the department and the secretary.”
If this is unsuccessful, the Department of Education will likely create a set of rules that allow college campuses to choose which bits and pieces of Title IX they wish to abide by, says Davidson. In that case, you can ask your state representative to pass legislation reinforcing the 2011 letter and hold college presidents and chancellors accountable to enforcing it as well.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted in this form or another, seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.