The two areas of the federal government oversight that have undergone the greatest change – and not in a good way – under the Trump Administration have been the environment and education – particularly Title IX. Under the leadership of the Obama Administration, we made great strides forward in making college campuses and all schools safer for students. We finally got serious about sexual assault on campus.
There is a reason why Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was the most controversial of his cabinet appointees and why she has a higher "very unfavorable" rating than any other cabinet member in a recent National Consult/Politico online poll. Of those polled, 28 percent have a very or somewhat favorable view of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, while 29 percent have a very unfavorable view of her.
On September 7, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised to replace what she called a “failed system” of civil rights enforcement on matters related to campus sexual assault. In her view, the government failed under President Barack Obama to find the right balance in protecting the rights of victims and the accused. The Obama Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights had declared in 2011 that schools should use a standard known as “preponderance of the evidence” when judging sexual violence cases that arise under the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX.
In the DeVos Education Department, the new standard is no standard at all. In a phone briefing with college lawyers on Sept. 28, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson said that colleges can use informal resolutions such as mediation to resolve Title IX complaints -- even those involving sexual assaults.
The ugly truth is that the rape culture that has prevailed on far too many college campuses for far too long has a new champion in Betsy DeVos. She has elevated male privilege to the top of the pecking order once again, after the steady progress we have made as a society to start to create the opportunity for real justice for victims.
The members of the American Association of University Women have worked tirelessly to strengthen the provisions of Title IX for the women and girls it was designed to protect since they were enacted in 1972. AAUW CEO Kimberly Churches responded to the DeVos announcement:
"The Department of Education should have heeded the comments submitted this week–including more than 10,000 from AAUW advocates–urging them to protect Title IX. The department’s willingness to ignore the overwhelming grassroots to national support for Title IX, its regulations, and prior guidance is proof that the agenda was not to listen and take into account input from the community but rather to move forward with a predetermined plan of action. AAUW looks forward to weighing in as the Department of Education engages in its stated rule-making process. In the meantime we call on schools to continue to uphold students’ civil rights. AAUW stands with survivors and will vigorously defend Title IX and the protections it affords all students.”
The voice of AAUW is one among many condemning the step backwards on Title IX protections that will only endanger more women on the campus to the threat and reality of sexual assault and violence. The data on those effects is clear, as a recent UNH study shows:
Sexual assault on a college campus can cause a considerable number of physical and emotional issues for the victim. While much needed programs, and past studies, have predominately focused on the mental health effects of such violent acts on students, new research by the University of New Hampshire shows that aggressive sexual acts can also adversely impact school work and overall college experience.
The study, recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found students who experienced sexual violence on campus had significantly lower academic efficacy, higher stress, lower institutional commitment, and lower scholastic conscientiousness than other students.
Researchers used questionnaires to survey 6,482 students (men and women) from eight universities in New England. They identified stressors around four areas of sexual violence; unwanted sexual contact, unwanted sexual intercourse, intimate partner violence, and stalking.
The study measured four academic outcomes that are important for college success and that might be impacted by sexual violence including academic efficacy, collegiate stress, institutional commitment, and scholastic conscientiousness. Overall, there were significant findings for three of the four forms of victimization, across all four of the academic measures.
The response to the DeVos roll back of Title IX protections has been immediate and wide spread. In the days following the announcement, Betsy DeVos has been met by protesters at college campuses in Boston and Washington since pulling back Obama-era guidance that outlined how schools should investigate sexual assault. Angry victims and their advocates have shown up at her speeches.
“We’re here to show up for survivors of sexual violence and for transgender students who are being harmed by her policies,” said Eve Zhurbinskiy, a 21-year-old George Washington senior. “And we’re here to advocate and hold her accountable for a stronger Title IX.”
New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and her colleague Hawaii Senator Mazie Keiko Hirono have introduced a bill intended to defend Title IX protections. The “Patsy Mink Gender Equity in Education Act being proposed by Congresswoman Slaughter and Senator Hirono strengthens the original intentions of Title IX,” said Cynthia Herriott Sullivan, vice president of public policy at the Greater Rochester Area Branch of the American Association of University Women. “It is clear that in today’s environment for young women, addressing gender disparity has become even more critical, and we stand with them. The American Association of University Women of New York State understands that this bill provides the substantive resources needed to insure Title IX serves its original purpose—to promote gender equity in education.”
In addition, a group of former Obama administration officials is launching a legal aid effort to assist students who are defrauded or suffer from discrimination. The organization, called the National Student Legal Defense Network, will work with state attorneys general and other advocacy groups to bring lawsuits on students' behalf. The network's co-founder Aaron Ament, a former chief of staff and special counsel at the Department of Education under Obama, said that the deregulatory agenda of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos means there is a need for more groups to step up to protect students.
As is so often the case in far too much of these United States, where you live determined how you live. States like California, New York and Illinois have passed legislation that surpassed what federal rules required to protect students from sexual assault on campus. New York’s Enough Is Enough Act will stay in place, regardless of what the federal Department of Education does.
These laws are working. In a recent report, the majority of New York's colleges and universities are handling instances and allegations of sexual assault in accordance with the state's "Enough is Enough" law, according to the findings of a statewide compliance review released. Out of 244 institutions reviewed, 120 rated significantly compliant, 95 rated compliant and 29 rated not compliant. Institutions not fully in compliance will be notified by the state Office of Campus Safety, and required to submit an action plan to achieve full compliance within 30 days.
Following the DeVos announcement, college-based professionals across the country rushed to reassure students that their commitment to preventing and punishing sexual assault remains unchanged.
In a blistering statement, University of California System President Janet Napolitano, a former HHS Cabinet Secretary herself, said that President Trump’s administration aimed to “undo six years’ worth of federal enforcement designed to strengthen sexual violence protections on college campuses.” Napolitano noted that both state and federal law are preserved. California has enacted one of the United States’ most stringent laws regulating how institutions of higher education investigate rape cases. “Even in the midst of unwelcome change and uncertainty, the university’s commitment to a learning environment free of sexual violence and sexual harassment will not waver,” Napolitano said.
What can we do as citizens? We can insist that the colleges and universities we send our children to maintain higher standards than those of the current federal Education Department when it comes to investigating sexual assault. We can always vote with our feet (and our wallets) away from schools with poor track records on campus violence. We can elect political leaders who take sexual assault and related crimes against people seriously and enact laws that protect victims and reduce the chances anyone will be a victim in the first place.