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September 12, 2017 by

Defying DeVos

Photo source: Wikipedia

Last Thursday, Betsy DeVos stated that she would rewrite the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL), a powerful document directed to K-12 and university administrations that clarified schools’ obligations under Title IX (a federal civil rights law) to combat sexual violence and to support survivors. In announcing her decision, DeVos claimed that the original Dear Colleague Letter – and federal enforcement of Title IX – did everyone a disservice.

DeVos’s justifications for dismantling Title IX protections couldn’t be further from the truth.

Before the Obama Administration took sexual violence seriously and enforced Title IX, schools were able to get away with mistreating student survivors. The stories of institutional abuses are horrific. One university told a student that she should work at Starbucks until her rapist graduated. Another student was told by an administrator that “rape is like a football game, if you look back on the game and you’re the quarterback, is there anything that you would have done differently?” Another university refused to take action while fraternity members marched around the freshman halls chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal.” Other survivors of sexual violence were forced to drop out when their school failed to address the violence, apparently because they did not know Title IX existed.

Although schools still have a long way to go, campuses have become safer and more equitable since the DCL was issued. The original DCL was crucial in ensuring that universities were providing survivors what they needed to stay in school after assault. For example, the DCL clarifies that schools should provide survivors with accommodations such as free counseling services and no-contact orders so that they don’t have to sit next to their rapists in their classes, or in the dining hall. The document has also made it easier for the Department of Education to enforce Title IX, as it educated thousands of students about their legal rights and helped them assist the Department in holding their schools accountable when they violated the law.

After the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) was released, survivors could exhale knowing that the federal government cared about our education. One student credits her school’s enforcement of Title IX as the reason she was able to go back to school after an assault, when the police shamed her after she reported it. Now, Betsy DeVos has sent the message that the federal government does not have survivors’ backs; that if a student is sexually assaulted at a university or a K-12 institution that is violating Title IX, the student will have no federal recourse.

DeVos claims that she is revising the Dear Colleague Letter in the name of due process. Underlying this claim is a belief that the rights of the accused are not being protected.

As Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, founders of the organization Know Your IX explain, “The [original] letter reaffirms schools’ obligation to provide for the rights of all parties involved in campus sexual assault cases and already requires many of the protections critics demand.” Contrary to what DeVos stated, according to the DCL, accused students should be provided a detailed account of the allegations against them so they can respond accordingly, they should be provided an equal opportunity to present any evidence or witnesses, and schools should provide an appeals process. If DeVos really wanted to protect survivors and respondents, she could increase enforcement actions against schools so that they would be more likely to adhere to the procedural already in place.

Given the strong protections in the DCL, it was perhaps most painful to hear Betsy DeVos treat the experiences of the 1 in 4 women sexually assaulted on college campus as akin to those of the minuscule number of accused individuals who have been found not to have been responsible for sexual assault. The fact is that the vast majority of rapists on campus will never be held accountable for their actions. For example, between 2004 and 2014, the University of Virginia did not expel a single student for sexual misconduct. Students who are found responsible are much more likely to be suspended and allowed to continue with their education than they are to be expelled from the campus community. In her references to “government overreach,” DeVos betrayed her true purpose: at a time when more survivors are starting to trust that they will receive a fair hearing from their school, DeVos hopes to further tilt the scale against them and help rapists and abusers avoid accountability.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m surprised. From the moment of DeVos’s confirmation hearings, where she refused to support the Dear Colleague Letter and insinuated that grizzly bears were a greater threat to students than school shootings, survivors knew that she would attempt to weaken federal enforcement of Title IX. After all, it is the “Grab Her By the Pussy” President who appointed DeVos.

So what happens next? Sexual violence is a Jewish issue. While attending a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, I myself was sexually assaulted  by a fellow Orthodox student. Here are a few concrete things you can do to support and protect survivors in what will surely be an uphill battle:

1)  Learn your rights. Title IX still protects students at any K-12 and university institution receiving federal funding.

2) Find out if your local Jewish day school has any consent education. Sexual assault begins long before college, and our institutions are falling behind in making sure our young people understand these issues.

3) If you are a current student or university alum, reach out to your current or former administration to demand that they make a public statement to support survivors and uphold their obligations under Title IX no matter what the federal government says.Check out this excellent example from students at Swarthmore.

4)  If you are a current student, you can organize right on your campus, and on the state level to make a difference. Know Your IX has comprehensive guides filled with strategies, best practices, and tips for winning campaigns.

Today, survivors of sexual assault are well connected, organized, and––most importantly––we know our rights.

Betsy DeVos, you can try to intimidate us into silence, but we know that Title IX is the law. We will show up loudly at your federal doorstep, in state legislatures, and on campuses until our civil rights are upheld and respected.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.