Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter — a document that provided incentives and clear guidelines for the proper handling of sexual assaults on college campuses. DeVos justified her decision by noting that the previous system failed to protect the rights of the accused to due process and was therefore a “disservice to everyone involved.” The education secretary failed to acknowledge, however, the ramifications of policies that elevate individuals accused of sexual violence. DeVos’ flawed approach to enforcing Title IX could potentially prolong the experience for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. DeVos’s policy puts politics and perpetrators ahead of victims, and for that it is an affront to justice.
In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights issued a statement to more than 7,000 colleges in an attempt to redefine the federal government’s jurisdiction in regards to Title IX. Originally intended to combat gender-based discrimination, Title IX has been referenced in countless sexual assault cases since its enactment. Under the Obama administration, the Office for Civil Rights threatened to withdraw federal funding from any institution that did not comply with its protocols for Title IX hearings. Arguably the most controversial of these guidelines was the “preponderance of evidence” standard, which allowed colleges to use the lowest standard of proof during an investigation. Critics of federal regulation argued that these rules were counterproductive and biased against the accused. Many claim that the “Dear Colleague” letter was “unfair toward the accused and could jeopardize their futures.”
These contentions are problematic for several reasons. DeVos’ decision stems from conservative ideologies that fundamentally oppose the type of “big government” intervention exemplified by the “Dear Colleague” letter. One could argue that DeVos’ actions are a part of the current administration’s attempt to rescind any and all Obama-era policies. When it comes to justice for victims of sexual violence, there is no place for politics. Laws that are enacted to protect civil rights must be upheld permanently so that those rights can remain secure under the federal government. It is not as if the removal of de jure segregation means that we no longer have to enforce anti-discrimination policies.
Given the low rates of reporting, we need a system that victims can trust. A study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that only 4.3 percent of sexual battery incidents and 12.5 percent of rape incidents are reported to officials. And contrary to DeVos’ allegations, higher numbers of guilty verdicts in these reported cases do not mean that the system is inefficient. Rather, it’s effective. And we need not raise the burden of proof so that sexual assaults are harder to prove. Across three different studies, the percentage of false reporting for sexual assaults was below 8 percent, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
There is an appalling lack of accountability when it comes to sexual assaults, particularly on elite college campuses. Brown has said the University’s Title IX policies will not change in the nearby future, and it is my hope that Brown and other schools will stand their ground and comply with the guidelines of the “Dear Colleague” letter. At no institution should concern for people’s future careers take precedence over the individuals who have the courage to speak out after they have been harmed.
The “Dear Colleague” letter was an important first step in achieving justice for survivors of sexual violence, but the journey is far from over. In our current era of partisan government, we must be wary not to politicize key legislation. DeVos set a dangerous precedent for the future of Title IX; accused individuals can now enjoy greater legal leeway in the name of institutional efficiency. While this seems like a good idea in theory, the reality is that it undermines the victim’s right to justice. When we do not prioritize the physical and emotional safety of survivors, we run the risk of furthering their struggles and silencing the voices that truly need to be heard.
Bami Oke ’20 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.