Regardless of how we voted in the 2016 presidential election, we should all be paying very close attention to Donald Trump’s proposed policy changes for higher education, and more specifically, his selection of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary.
DeVos is a philanthropist and former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, known for her ardent financial support of charter school voucher programs (school choice).
Little is known about both Trump’s and DeVos’ views on federal higher education policy — they’ve offered so few specifics and have no experience in the area — but what is known is deeply troubling to advocates for survivors of sexual assault and proponents of Title IX.
Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments Act is the landmark civil rights legislation that states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Although Title IX is best known for breaking barriers for women in collegiate sports; it also opens doors for women in STEM, ensures fair treatment of pregnant and parenting students and requires that students, faculty and staff are afforded a learning environment free from bullying and sexual harassment. Under Title IX, sexual assault is considered a form of gender discrimination.
The Department of Education directs every school to employ a Title IX Coordinator to manage complaints. Once a complaint is filed, universities must conduct their own prompt investigation – the department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) proposes 60 days as an appropriate timeframe – regardless of whether the complainant reports the assault to local police.
A major distinction between a Title IX violation and a criminal conviction is the burden of proof institutions are required to use when adjudicating sexual assault cases.
While the standard of proof for criminal cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” universities are to use a “preponderance of evidence” standard, which is just enough evidence to make it more likely than not an assault has occurred.
The preponderance of evidence standard was laid out in 2011 when the Department of Education’s OCR issued a Dear Colleague letter urging institutions to better investigate and adjudicate cases of sexual assault. The letter clarified how the department interprets Title IX and, for the past five years, has been the guiding document for colleges hoping to avoid a federal civil rights investigation into their handling of complaints.
The Obama administration made preventing campus sexual assaults a signature issue of its Education Department. His successor has been accused of sexual assault and has boasted about groping and kissing women without “even waiting” for consent.
Trump has not stated whether he plans on changing any guidance or funding related to Title IX; however, the Republican Party did include campus sexual assault and Title IX as part of its platform released at the July GOP convention. The platform called sexual assault a terrible crime “that should be investigated by civil authorities and prosecuted in a courtroom, not a faculty lounge.”
Additionally, the platform criticized the White House’s expansion of Title IX’s scope, calling it a distortion to “micromanage” the way colleges and universities handle allegations of abuse.
Betsy DeVos has given thousands of dollars to an advocacy group called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) whose primary focus is to “defend the rights of those accused of campus sexual assault.” FIRE has sued the Department of Education to raise the standard of proof for victims of sexual assault in university administrative hearings. Due to the absence of an actual record, DeVos’ donations are quite disturbing to those who want to crack down on campus assault.
The majority of sexual assaults that occur are not reported to police. There are a number of reasons for this, but one is that survivors rarely see justice; the vast majority of rapists will not go to prison or face jail time.
According to RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network), out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free. We’re reminded of this regularly as a society. This summer, Brock Turner was caught raping an unconscious woman next to a dumpster, and he spent three months behind bars.
Many victims of sexual assault seek justice at a university level because the outcomes in the criminal justice system are so abysmal. At universities, Title IX is a tool for fairness and a beacon of hope juxtaposed to bleak statistics and measly sentences from the criminal justice system.
Now is not the time to scale back on Title IX.