After years of hard work elevating the voices and experiences of victims of campus sexual violence, Betsy DeVos, now at the helm of the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, told victims and advocates, ‘Shhhh…you’re upsetting the male students’. Not one survivor’s group was invited to today’s announcement in which DeVos made it repeatedly clear that young men are not being given a fair shake and that “the accused” deserve better.
No system is perfect, but DeVos’s claim that the Obama Administration’s Title IX guidance is failing students is a blatant lie. The system was failing students well before 2008. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden actually brought attention to the issue of campus sexual violence, making it a national discussion by launching their campaign, It’s On Us and issuing a first-of-its kind report, Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action (which has been taken down from the Trump Administration’s website).
If anyone has failed students, it’s Betsy DeVos, who, in one fell swoop validated the mindset of rape culture– attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence that are unfortunately still held by many.
I had the privilege of working on campus sexual violence policy in the state of Connecticut from 2013-2016. In so doing, I had many conversations with lawmakers and legislative staff that were laced in victim blaming and misunderstanding that DeVos perpetuated today.
I have been told that “women make false accusations to get attention or to ruin a man’s life.” I have been asked why a “wink and a nod” is no longer acceptable and have witnessed confused stares when I explain that just because you’re dating someone, you aren’t owed sex. I have heard that the real problem is that “girls are drinking too much and if they could just behave themselves there wouldn’t be so much sexual violence.” And, I have had a male lawmaker tell me that “if a girl wears a tight skirt and a low cut top then she should expect that the night will end in sex.”
But, I have also lived the last 35 years as a woman in a culture where it is socially acceptable for men to shout sexually charged things at women from their car. I was taught to carry my keys when walking alone and to cover my drink in order to prevent sexual assault. I have worked as an advocate at a Sexual Assault Crisis Center where I have seen firsthand how the systems that are intended to provide women with justice don’t, and, if a woman has the means to seek alternative justice through the civil courts and wins she is deemed a gold digger. I have sat with friends who were raped by friends and struggle to understand why and how this happened to them. And, I have listened to young women from the University of Connecticut, my Alma mater, describe in detail how they were told to transfer schools or that women are too easy by the school officials charged with protecting them.
When Betsy DeVos focuses the majority of her attention on “the accused” and their right to due process, she is actually talking about a very small fraction of the student population she is responsible for. Even though one in five women will be raped during college, the rates of reporting sexual violence remain low. That’s because the overwhelming majority of students who are sexually assaulted are attempting to make sense of what happened to them and to simply feel safe again. Most students are more concerned with having their classes changed or their dorm room moved in order to avoid their rapist, than with pressing criminal charges or going through the campus disciplinary process.
Because of legislation that was passed in Connecticut in 2014, the Connecticut General Assembly’s Higher Education Committee receives in-depth reports from all of the state’s Universities and Colleges on incidents of campus sexual violence. So, to get real on who these “accused” students are, here are the 2015 numbers for disciplinary proceedings at two Connecticut schools–one public and one private.
The University of Connecticut had 78 reports of incidents of sexual assault.
- 13 students chose to participate in an investigation.
- Eight of those reports resulted in the school finding no violation and the accused student was found “not responsible.”
- Three of those investigations ended in expulsion for the accused, and
- Two resulted in probation.
At Yale University, there were 39 reports of incidents of sexual assault.
- Eight resulted in a disciplinary proceeding.
- One student was expelled.
- Three investigations resulted in probation, and
- Four students were found “not responsible.”
Not every schools is investigating campus sexual violence the right way, but, with guidance from the Obama Administration 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter,” schools have been working to improve their interpretation of Title IX as it pertains to campus sexual violence and providing much needed training and support to staff and students. The Trump Administration is attempting to halt this progress and embolden those who benefit from rape culture.
Betsy DeVos said as much in her remarks, “If everything is harassment, then nothing is. Punishing speech protected by the First Amendment trivializes actual harassment. It teaches students the wrong lesson about the importance of free speech in our democracy.”
It appears that Betsy DeVos, like everyone else in the Trump Administration, interprets civil rights to mean the rights of white men over all others. What Ms. DeVos doesn’t realize though, is that that Obama Administration didn’t fail students. It empowered them, and advocates, and survivors. And, we are very clear on the importance of free speech in our democracy. So, we will stand up to this latest attack on our civil rights by an Administration that is led by a sexual predator and we will continue to challenge harassment in all of its forms.
#ItsOnUs…and we will.