DeVos endangers Title IX

Photo credit: Rewon Shimray

On Thursday, United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced her plan to review and replace Obama-era Title IX guidelines, calling it a “failed system” of sexual assault enforcement on campus.

Earlier this year marked the 45th anniversary of Title IX’s implementation. In June 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments, prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid.

In April 2011, the national Office for Civil Rights issued the “Dear Colleague” letter, stating that sexual violence is harassment, putting it under the jurisdiction of Title IX.

The letter also instructed schools to use the lowest standard of proof, a preponderance of evidence, meaning that it must be more than likely that someone is responsible for the incident in question, rather than using “beyond a reasonable doubt” as the standard.

DeVos said that Title IX has helped clarify that educational institutions have a responsibility to protect students’ rights to learn in a safe environment, but also said that many institutions fall short in their responsibility under Title IX to protect students from sexual misconduct on campus.

“We know this much to be true: one rape is one too many,” DeVos said during her speech at George Mason University on Thursday. “One assault is one too many. One aggressive act of harassment is one too many. One person denied due process is one too many. This conversation may be uncomfortable, but we must have it. It is our moral obligation to get this right.”

If anything, Title IX needs to be expanded, not replaced. Supporting victims and protecting students needs to be the No. 1 priority of universities when it comes to sexual assault. If the “Dear Colleague” letter is discredited, not only will it endanger students, but it will send a message that victims of campus sexual assault are not taken seriously nor protected.

DeVos is absolutely right that one assault is too many and that we must talk about this. She is wrong that Title IX needs to be replaced. Title IX is not perfect. No policy regarding sexual assaults is going to be able to heal victims or mend their trauma, but disregarding the “Dear Colleague” letter will do more harm than good when it comes to helping victims and encouraging them to report.

DeVos expressed her concern that universities are not protecting the rights of those accused of sexual assault. Protecting the rights of the accused at the expense of the rights of the victim is wrong and will only lead to more victims and also more assailants going free. Research released in 2010 from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that 63 percent of sexual assaults are never reported, and that the prevalence of false reports of sexual violence is low, between 2 percent and 10 percent.

DeVos argues that the “Dear Colleague” letter hindered due process rights for those accused of sexual assault on college campuses, but that is an inaccurate interpretation of the letter. The letter lays out a school’s obligation to protect the rights of all parties involved in campus sexual assault cases. DeVos claims that with the current system, those accused are not given proper notice of accusations or access to evidence against them. But the “Dear Colleague” letter specifically states that “the parties must have an equal opportunity to present relevant witnesses and other evidence. The complainant and the alleged perpetrator must be afforded similar and timely access to any information that will be used at the hearing.”

Title IX is not perfect, but DeVos’ new plan won’t be either. Universities should make it clear that students refuse to move backward on dealing with sexual assault and protecting students and victims.