In a recent announcement and subsequent media interviews, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos communicated that her department will review and likely rescind Title IX guidelines including the Dear Colleague Letter established by the Obama administration in 2011.
A little background…
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. Discrimination as defined by Title IX includes sexual violence. Notably, “sex” was expanded in 2016 to include gender identity. As one of its first policy moves, the DeVos Department of Education rescinded protections for transgender students in public schools under Title IX.
In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan introduced comprehensive guidance in the form of a Dear Colleague letter and supporting materials to help schools, colleges, and universities better understand their obligations under federal civil rights laws to prevent and respond to the problem of campus sexual assault.
Biden was no stranger to meaningful law-making regarding violence. In 1994 as a senator, he was the author of the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which exposed high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking experienced by women in the US. VAWA changed the way domestic violence is handled by law enforcement and in the criminal justice system, and also established critical services for survivors.
The Dear Colleague letter made clear the legal obligations under Title IX of any school, college, or university receiving federal funds to respond promptly and effectively to sexual violence. Under Title IX, schools receiving federal funding have an obligation to end sexual violence, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects.
Back to today…
The stated rationale for the rollback proposed by DeVos is that the current policy denies due process to individuals accused of committing sexual violence.
“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,” DeVos said in her September 7th announcement at George Mason University.
“The truth is that 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,” DeVos said.
Although no less disappointing and disturbing, this position should not come as a surprise. In her confirmation hearing, DeVos would not commit to upholding the 2011 guidance on Title IX.
Later, DeVos’ acting assistant secretary for civil rights Candice Jackson stated in a New York Times interview that campus sexual violence investigations have gone awry regarding the rights of the accused, and have not been “fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student.”
No one wants accused students to be denied due process. But rolling back guidelines that have brought more awareness, reporting, and enforcement is not the answer. We must build on our strengths and progress, including working to prevent any violations of due process, not undermine schools’ motivation to comply and discourage survivors from reporting assaults.
One in four women and countless transgender and gender-non-conforming students are sexually assaulted during their college years. In our society, sexual assault is the second most violent crime after murder, and while the vast majority of sexual assault survivors are female, almost 10% are male (National Sexual Violence Resource Center).
Frequently, survivors do not report the crime to any campus or law enforcement authority. In one 2014-15 national survey of nine colleges, only 40 of 770 rapes on campus were reported to campus authorities. The obstacles survivors face in reporting sexual assault and staying safe can be insurmountable. Rolling back protections under Title IX will not improve this situation, but addressing enforcement issues will.
Sexual violence is not “sexual misconduct” as DeVos repeatedly referred to it in her remarks. This language minimizes the deeply traumatic experience of survivors and reinforces public myths and misperceptions about gender-based violence. Perpetrators and survivors of sexual assault do not represent two equal sides.
The essence of Title IX is to for all schools—from Kindergarten through college—to provide students with a learning environment that is free from gender-based discrimination in all forms, including sexual violence. Schools must address all safety concerns—environment, bullying, drugs/alcohol, security—and sexual violence is no different.
A week after DeVos’ announcement, 29 U.S. senators sent DeVos an open letter urging her to maintain current Title IX guidelines: “The current guidance is critical to ensuring that schools understand and take seriously their responsibilities under the law, and we urge you to leave the current guidance in place. Rescinding the guidance would be a step in the wrong direction in addressing the national epidemic of campus sexual assault.”
In the July 2017 NJ Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault report, we have made specific recommendations on properly investigating and adjudicating cases of sexual violence on campus so they are fair to both the person making the accusation and the person accused:
- Higher education institutions should ensure that students’ right are protected and that equal representation is provided to both parties.
- The investigation and adjudication model should honor both parties and be tailored to the needs, character, and philosophy of the school.
- Investigations should be separate from adjudications. Investigators collecting evidence should not also sit in judgement as adjudicators. Investigators and adjudicators are properly trained and qualified in their roles.
- Campuses should develop written policies and procedures outlining the potential sanctions the institution may impose following a final determination. Policies should list available mental health support, general counseling services, and legal support services both on-campus and off-campus for both parties.
- Once a sexual assault complaint is filed, each party should have a separate trained and qualified resource advisor for learning about and accessing available services. Resource advisors are separate from the Title IX Coordinator, the investigator, and the adjudicator.
As these recommendations indicate, there is no argument that properly adjudicating cases of sexual violence in a way that is fair to both the person making the accusation and the person accused is critical. Rolling back essential Title IX guidelines does nothing but undermine both fundamental fairness and safety of our school communities.
We must use our voices through all available channels to support essential anti-violence measures in policy and practice alike. Here are some concrete steps you can take:
- Participate in the Department of Education public comment period (through September 20) by expressing your support for the continued enforcement of Title IX and Dear Colleague guidelines regarding sexual violence: federalregister.gov/documents/2017/08/11/2017-16876/evaluation-of-existing-regulations
- Use #StopBetsy on social media to defend Title IX and support survivors of sexual violence.
- Learn about EROC’s (End Rape On Campus) #DearBetsy campaign and call the Department of Education to explain why Title IX is so important to safe school communities. endrapeoncampus.org/dearbetsy
- Support local organizations like our YWCA Bergen County healingSPACE sexual violence resource center, which is doing the daily work of supporting survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones as well as raising community awareness through education, events, and training. ywcabergencounty.org/get-involved/donategive
As Chief Executive Officer of YWCA Bergen County since July 2011, Helen Archontou focuses on guiding the organization in living its mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and strengthening families and communities. Helen brings nearly 20 years of executive management experience in the not-for-profit sector, and under Helen’s leadership, the organization has expanded program offerings and deepened its commitment to its mission. Helen is a state-appointed member of the NJ State Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault, Co-Chairperson of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking‘s Legislative Committee, and a member of AAUW’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Helen has been recognized for her work as CEO of YWCA Bergen County by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance Committee of Bergen County, Bergen County Commission on the Status of Women, and Key HR Consulting. Helen is often sought after by the media for her expertise on topics such as gender pay equity for women of color (interview on FOX 5 NY), reporting of sexual assaults on college campuses (interview by NJTV News), and campus sexual violence (op-ed in The Record / NorthJersey.com). Helen is an adjunct professor in the Master’s Degree program for the Center for Child Advocacy at Montclair State University since 2005 and a Board Member of the Bergen Community College Women’s Institute since 2012.