This week, as millions of students were arriving back on campus for the new school year, the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, announced a disturbing change in how the Department of Education will deal with campus sexual assault under her watch. Instead of using her position to enforce, or even strengthen, the Department of Education’s guidelines that have protected so many students – including sexual assault survivors and students accused of committing sexual assault – Secretary DeVos told CBS News that she wants to “revoke or rescind” them. She says that the Obama administration went too far in supporting the rights of survivors of campus sexual assault, but I couldn’t disagree more.
This decision betrays our students, plain and simple – and it’s especially egregious that she announced it during the period known as the “red zone,” which is the first few weeks of the school year when new students are more vulnerable and more likely to be sexually assaulted. With so many sexual assaults still happening on college campuses all over the country, we should be doing everything we can to make our sexual assault prevention and enforcement policies stronger – not weakening them, not jeopardizing them, and certainly not taking them away.
The policies are based on a civil rights law called Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools. When Congress passed Title IX 45 years ago, it was unprecedented because it required that all students have equal access to everything at their schools – including safety. Title IX was groundbreaking in the fight against campus sexual assault. Unfortunately, for many years, college and university administrators did not have clear instructions from the government about how they were supposed to deal with sexual assault when it occurred on their campuses. On one side, many sexual assault survivors felt they weren’t believed by their schools. On the other, many students accused of committing sexual assault didn’t feel they could adequately defend themselves.
To fix this, in 2011, the Department of Education announced new guidelines to explain the requirements of Title IX and help colleges and universities comply with the law. The guidelines gave our schools a process with clear rules, so that both sides in a sexual assault case could finally have access to fair hearings. These are the guidelines that Secretary DeVos wants to take away. With an average of one in five undergraduate women in America experiencing sexual assault while in college, this is an enormous mistake.
First, the Title IX guidelines make sure our college and university presidents know their responsibilities for addressing sexual assault on their campuses – which many of them weren’t doing before, or are still struggling to do now. We need this guidance because too many schools still aren’t getting it right; there are 257 colleges and universities currently under investigation by the Department of Education for potential violations of Title IX related to sexual violence. The good news is that more schools than ever are paying attention to this issue, and are trying meet Title IX’s requirements for addressing campus sexual assault. This is a huge change, and it happened in large part because so many campus sexual assault survivors demanded action from their schools and the Department of Education. The last thing we should do now is abandon all the progress we’ve already made.
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