On Thursday, Sept. 7, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that her department is evaluating Obama-era Department of Education policies that focus on campus sexual assault. During her speech, Secretary DeVos made clear that “One rape is one too many, one assault is one too many, one aggressive act of harassment is one too many, one person denied due process is one too many.” Though, despite this sentiment, many Americans are concerned about the notion of changes –which are currently unspecified– to campus sexual assault investigations and how these changes will affect survivors of sexual assault.
In 2011, the Obama Administration began issuing guidelines for colleges and universities to follow in the event of a reported sexual assault. The fear that spurred these guidelines is that schools would cover up sexual assaults to avoid bad news coverages and declining enrollment. These schools protected their reputations and the assaulter, at the expense of the survivor.
The guidance from the Obama Administration demanded that schools follow a more rigorous investigation and prosecution process of sexual assaults and rapes on campus. Title IX was used as justification to investigate sexual assaults, specifically since most survivors of sexual assaults are women. Title IX, codified by Congress in the Education Amendments of 1972, states “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be … subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This means that schools that receive money from the federal government – through grants, participation in student loan programs, etc. – are legally required to prohibit sex discrimination, and are at risk of losing federal funds if such discrimination exists.
In the years following the Obama-era guidance, campuses across the country have taken a more active role in campus sexual assaults, from the reporting and investigation processes, to providing the support system necessary for survivors of sexual assault. The student bodies of these schools have also rallied in support of sexual assault survivors at unprecedented levels. Across the nation, the campus dialogue now includes sexual assault, which may seem unfortunate but it is far superior to the alternative of avoiding the problem by covering it up and denying justice.
A victim of any crime, especially sexual assault, should be supported in every way possible. Sexual assault in general is a pervasively under-reported crime, with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) finding that an estimated 63 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported. This research only mentions reports to the police, and not to school officials. Research has also shown that the false accusations of rape and sexual assault are very low, likely between two and eight percent. Survivors of sexual assault should not be shamed or discounted when they come forward; in fact, they should be supported, as it is a very brave thing to do. But due process of the accused must be respected to avoid a witch hunt tried in the court of public opinion.
It should also be understood that Title IX investigations are considered “parallel” to criminal investigations. This means that an investigation conducted by the school can come to a guilty verdict, for example, and a criminal investigation conducted by the police can have an entirely different conclusion such as not guilty. There may even be some cases where a criminal investigation never occurs. Colleges and universities have enormous power in deciding the fates of the accused, and with any powerful institution, there are many skeptics.
Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Trump Administration seem to be wary of the investigation and enforcement processes that are currently in place. When asked by journalist Jan Crawford on whether her department plans on “rescinding the Obama Administration guidelines,” secretary DeVos stated “well, that’s the intention, and we’ve begun the process to do so.” She also believes that the Obama-era guidelines have failed both the survivors and the accused, stating “the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students. Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”
Something was out of place. Despite the speech and press conference, Secretary DeVos didn’t disclose any specifics on the Education Department’s new policy direction. Her remarks on the new policy were vague; a call-to-action for the public’s input: “in order to ensure that America’s schools employ clear, equitable, just and fair procedures that inspire trust and confidence, we will launch a transparent notice-and-comment process to incorporate the insights of all parties in developing a better way, we will seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise and the experiences of students to replace the current approach with a workable, effective and fair system.” Despite being a policy speech, it’s not immediately clear where the rubber will hit the road, which puts many students across the country on edge.
At this point, it is unclear exactly how the current process of reporting and investigating sexual assaults will change, but it is clear that Secretary DeVos is bringing change to this country’s campuses: undoing President Obama’s ‘Change.’