President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has been extremely controversial from the get-go. The Michigan billionaire has no experience working in public schools, and during her Senate nomination hearings, she was forced to acknowledge that she had no prior personal experience with federal student loans, or with managing massive loan programs. Now, DeVos is raising eyebrows and catching the ire of student activists over her decision to meet with on-campus groups that protect students accused of rape.
Earlier this month, Secretary DeVos set about a series of private meetings to potentially look into revising aspects of Title IX. This is the policy that enforces equal rights for students of colleges and universities, including that appropriate action is taken to protect victims of sexual assault — and to provide consequences to the perpetrators of it.
DeVos met both with activists working to end rape culture and sexual assault on college campuses, as well as groups who advocate for the rights of students (who are almost always men) accused of rape. Regarding her meetings with on-campus assault organizations, DeVos told a group of reporters that “There are some things that are working. There are many things that are not working well. We need to get this right,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Meeting to hear the “other side” of the campus rape culture narrative had a lot of people concerned, and DeVos only fell under additional fire after one of her employees suggested rape allegations are mostly false reports. Included in these meetings were men’s rights groups, the National Coalition for Men and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), both of which have been known to deny the existence of rape culture and harass women who come forward with sexual assault allegations.
The acting head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson, said in an interview with the New York Times in mid-July that 90 percent of the rape accusation stories she has heard “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'” She also said that the “facts just don’t back… up” the allegations made by many victims of sexual assault. These remarks flew in the face of the DeVos camp line that meetings with men’s rights groups should not be considered endorsements, as Inside Higher Ed reports.
Jackson quickly attempted to downplay her comments. She acknowledged that they were “flippant” and added that all sexual assault “needs to be taken seriously.” But the damage was done, and one senator from Washington even called for DeVos to fire Jackson over her comments.
Patty Murray, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee wrote in a statement that “Ms. Jackson’s callous, insensitive, and egregious comments regarding sexual assault on college campuses crossed a serious line and highlighted her clear biases in this area in a way that, to me and many women and men across the country, should disqualify her from service in the position of top Department of Education protector of students’ right to be safe at school.”
The DeVos strategy of “listening and getting as much input as possible” in her mission to alter Title IX comes after a bit of a culture shift on campus rape. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz gained widespread attention in 2014 when she began carrying a mattress around campus as a performance art piece intended to protest the university’s lack of response to her on-campus rape, declaring that she would carry the mattress until her alleged rapist was expelled.
At around the same time, the Stanford rape case ignited a renewed national interest in rape at college campuses and drew attention to the reality of rape for survivors, as well as the ways that schools and the court system give perpetrators slack for their crimes, even when they are convicted. Former Vice President Joe Biden spearheaded a campaign against sexual assault on campuses, and in 2015, CNN released The Hunting Ground, a documentary about rape culture on college campuses.
Because statistics show that false rape accusations are extremely rare, the concern from students about the weight DeVos is giving to men who say they have been wrongfully accused is understandable. Other politicians have piped up as well, asking DeVos to leave Title IX alone. A Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, Robert Casey Jr., wrote to DeVos asking her not to dismantle important Title IX provisions that help keep women safe on campus: “Instead of catering to organizations that want to sweep sexual assaults on college campuses under the rug, the Department of Education should confront this challenge directly by coming to uphold the protections currently in place.”
Advocates for sexual assault survivors may have their work cut out for them under the new administration, but the widespread outrage shows that plenty of people are paying attention, even if the White House is not.
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