Among the many deeply important questions Betsy DeVos was asked at her senate confirmation hearing in January, all of which she failed to offer decent answers to, arguably the most important one posed was whether or not she would uphold current federal guidance on Title IX and sexual assault cases on campuses. DeVos responded that it was too early to say.
Now that, unsettlingly enough, she may be confirmed, it’s worth taking a look at just how much policy and protocol regarding campus sexual assault could change in the next four years.
After all, where former President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were famous for their advocacy for sexual assault survivors and the important reforms established by the Obama administration, President Donald Trump is a self-admitted “pussy” grabber with a handful of accusations of sexual abuse levied against him, all of which he’s responded to by defaming and harassing the women.
Trump’s election in it of itself marks a loss for survivors and advocates and where campus sexual assault specifically is concerned, DeVos is at best indifferent and, at worst, the beginning of the end for Obama and Biden’s hard-fought reforms.
Current federal guidelines offer a “definition for sexual assault that provides broader protection for victims,” Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote in 2011. Additionally, according to the Martin Center for Academic Renewal, reforms and protections allowing students to report their experiences solely to their school’s administration and not law enforcement, have contributed to higher rates of reporting and, as a result, justice for survivors. On a federal level, the reporting rate is estimated to be just 63 percent according to a 2012 report by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, since so many survivors are justifiably afraid of the stigma, shame, and blame they will inevitably face upon reporting their experiences.
The current system is imperfect. Despite low rates of false reporting on a federal level, it’s not too uncommon for innocent students to be tragically found guilty, and in the same vein, lack of rape kits on campuses too often result in victims not receiving justice.
But if DeVos ceases to uphold these critical reforms which offer survivors wider protections and allow them protection from the often traumatic process of working with law enforcement, survivors on college campuses would be far worse off. As secretary of education, on top of wrecking the financial aid system and weakening public schools as a whole, it would be within the scope of DeVos’ power to sweepingly leave cases of sexual assault to law enforcement, despite research that suggests many students would not have reported their sexual assault if they had to report to the police, and in the words of Anna Voremberg of End Rape On Campus, law enforcement is simply “not adequately prepared to handle campus sexual assault cases.”
Additionally, depending on the state in which the student is attending college, if alcohol and drugs are involved in the case of sexual assault, as they commonly are on college campuses, rapes are “almost never prosecuted,” Voremberg stated. Unfortunately, there’s no way to sweepingly erase victim-blaming and shaming from the handling of sexual assault cases, but leaving them to law enforcement certainly wouldn’t help.
DeVos’ unwillingness to commit to upholding the guarantees of the famous 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter” that asserts campus sexual assault survivors’ rights isn’t just disappointing in light of all of the progress of recent years in raising awareness about and destigmatizing sexual assault survivors. It’s also frankly scary.