Betsy DeVos went before the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Tuesday evening on Capitol Hill as the president-elect’s nomination for the Secretary of the Department of Education. Democratic Senators had pushed the originally-scheduled hearing back by a week under heavy pressure from teachers’ unions. While it seems the majority of the conflict is currently centered around K-12 schools of choice, some advocacy groups asked the committee members to question DeVos about her views on Title IX, in particular the provisions it currently provides to victims of sexual assault.
Concern was fueled by DeVos’ past donations to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, better known as FIRE, which mandated due process by universities when dealing with sexual assault allegations. In 2011 under the Obama administration, a directive was issued to higher education institutions requiring compliance with Title IX, originally introduced in 1972. While positive assistance programs for victims were created, the bureaucratic legalities have outweighed the intention of the president’s edict. Title IX compliance officials drawing salaries and generating a need for higher tuition costs do little to adequately curtail this incredibly serious crime on campuses.
Ask the actual victims of college campus assaults how their cases were handled and you will likely find their sense of re-victimization comes from the university officials and their processes, not necessarily law enforcement. Whether they fear reporting to administrators, not being taken seriously, or campus employees unable (or worse, unwilling) to find adequate evidence to hold their assailants academically responsible, the current approach is not working.
Trained law enforcement should clearly be given the primary opportunity to be conducting the investigation with due process for the accused as the standard. Perpetrators need criminal records, not just school discipline records that are kept private because of the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act. After all, the most severe sanction a college administration can impose is expulsion.
Instead of simply stating this is a problem, the incoming administration could offer possible solutions of great utility. For instance, Critical Incident Response Teams across the country are created and trained to collaborate amongst various agencies and sometime across jurisdictions to investigate incidents of officer involved shootings and mass tragedies. Many judicial districts also have Sexual Assault Review Teams with varying members to look at cases individually and offer guidance to prosecutors. Universities cannot be a just investigator, judge and jury on these cases, even if a preponderance of evidence is all that is required under the latest directive. An external review board would be a great start and bring transparency to a very veiled process.
Unfortunately, Title IX does not need to be the partisan issue it has become. Attempts to make it appear as such undermine the equal protection it is intended to preserve. How you identify, who you love, or what socioeconomic situation you hail from should be irrelevant when equal opportunities to remain safe and protected at your place of higher learning is at stake. Sexual assault is not a women’s rights issue, it is a human rights issue.
In the days leading up to DeVos’ much anticipated confirmation hearing, a social media campaign titled “#DearBetsy” launched online via multiple sexual assault advocacy organizations. The campaign focused its efforts on rallying individuals to address DeVos prior to the Senate’s confirmation using their hashtag, encouraging their elected representatives to do the same.
Amidst procedural bickering, the committee grilled DeVos for over three hours on Tuesday evening, with multiple representatives asking the nominee about her support for President Obama’s 2011 directive and her views on campus sexual assault.
When Democratic Senator Bob Casey (PA) questioned DeVos on whether or not she believed sexual assault on campuses was a problem, she replied “Sexual assault in any form in any place is a problem”. Later, Democratic Senator Patty Murray (WA) made statements about the country’s sexual assault epidemic. She took the opportunity to pose a question about President-elect Trump’s comments from leaked “Access Hollywood” audio, asking whether or not Mrs. DeVos would consider touching or groping a woman’s genitals without her consent as sexual assault. DeVos replied with a simple “yes.”
While she stated it would be premature to agree to upholding President Obama’s 2011 directive, she assured the voting committee that if confirmed, “I look forward to understanding the past actions and the current administration better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim, the rights of the victim, as well as those who are accused."
Though DeVos’ answer was non-committal to either extreme, it leaves opportunity for meaningful dialogue to take place and ensure Title IX’s protections are preserved. In this political landscape where it has grown apparent that the less government involvement, the better, this is an area sorely in need of intervention. It also cries out for our elected and appointed officials to be held accountable and represent we the people, not their own special interests. Betsy DeVos should be no exception.
I detest that one side works to dispel the statistics that roughly 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be victimized at some point in their lifetime. We may not like it, but putting more effort in to attacking the data than supporting victims just makes you look like insensitive jerks.
I hate that the other has hijacked true victim advocacy and melded it with their off brand of tunnel-vision “feminism” that has more to do with our body parts than anything else. Stop—it is incredibly obvious that this is for votes, and frankly, it scares off victims who may not agree with your other political views.
As a survivor of college sexual assault myself, I can tell you it is completely possible to be both a staunch advocate for victim rights while still supporting due process. I implore the incoming administration to continue these conversations, allow the justice system to do its job, and everyone to start by believing victims.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, contact the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) online or by calling the 24/7 crisis hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673).