DeVos: ‘It Would Be Premature’ to Commit to Keeping Title IX Sexual Assault Guidance

By Sandi Villarreal 1-18-2017

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, said during her Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 17 she looks forward to understanding the “range of opinions” around Title IX guidelines for colleges addressing sexual assault on campus. While DeVos agreed with Sen. Bob Casey (D.-Penn.) that “sexual assault in any form or any place is a problem,” she stopped short of saying whether she would uphold 2011 rules laid out in the Office for Civil Right’s Dear Colleague letter, which requires any schools receiving federal funding to have procedures in place and take immediate action on incidents of sexual violence, harassment, or discrimination.

“If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better and to ensure that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the rights of the victims as well as those who are accused,” DeVos said.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, since the 2011 Dear Colleage letter, the government has conducted 359 investigations of possible mishandling of sexual violence reports; of those, 301 remain open investigations. 

"To say [sexual assault on campus] is an epidemic is an understatement," Casey said. 

... Parents, for generations, have told their daughters, study hard in school. Get good grades. Because when you get good grades you might have an opportunity to go to college, and if you go to college, the world is open to you, and you can succeed by having a higher education. But too often — it happens every year on many campuses around the country — too often a young woman is a victim, sometimes in the first day she is there, the first week, sometimes over the course of her first year. Her life is destroyed. We have a long way to go in addressing the problem.

Casey's line of questioning came in light of news that DeVos made donations totaling $10,000 to a group that advocates for raising the burden of proof for college sexual assault victims.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education co-founder Harvey Silverglate said the Obama administration has interpreted the Title IX antidiscrimination law, “as a mandate to punish students and faculty accused of sexual misconduct using procedures that make it extraordinarily difficult for even an innocent person to defend himself.”

In a Facebook post following the hearing, Casey called DeVos' answer to his question "deeply troubling."

"It is not 'premature' for a nominee to be Secretary of Education to commit to enforcing campus sexual assault laws," the post reads. "... We’ve come too far and have too far to go on campus sexual assaults to go back to the days of zero accountability. A sexual assault is the ultimate betrayal and the students of our nation deserve a Secretary of Education who will stand up for them, not one unwilling to commit to enforcing basic campus sexual assault protections."

In the lead up to Tuesday's hearing, activists launched a #DearBetsy social media campaign, calling on the nominee to protect Title IX. 

While the future of Title IX enforcement remains unclear — some congressional Republicans have called for a scale back of the Office of Civil Rights — some advocates and administrators say they don't foresee campuses fully dismantling their Title IX procedures.

Laura L. Dunn, founder of advocacy group SurvJusticetold the Chronicle of Higher Education, "There’s going to be a sea change in the country, and we really don’t know what all that’s going to look like. But I’m not worried about campuses no longer addressing sexual violence."

The fate of those 301 open investigations remains to be seen. 

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor and Chief Digital Officer for Sojourners. You can find her on Twitter @Sandi.

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