DeVos is turning back the clock on survivors

Camila Quarta explains why Betsy DeVos' announcement of plans to gut Title IX protections will leave survivors of sexual assault without any rights or assurances.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Gage Skidmore | flickr)Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Gage Skidmore | flickr)

IN A speech to an invitation-only audience at George Mason University on September 6, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the back-to-school announcement all survivors and anti-sexual violence organizers have spent the last months preparing for: the rollback of Title IX protections for sexual assault cases in education.

"Washington has burdened schools with increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines," DeVos claimed in her address, referring to the Obama-era "Dear Colleague" letter, a 2011 guidance document that outlines schools' responsibility to enforce Title IX in cases of sexual harassment and clarifies crucial protections for survivors.

In a later interview with CBS, DeVos explicitly stated that the Trump administration intends to rescind the guidelines and that the "notice-and-comment process" to do so has already begun, despite Title IX remaining legally intact.

The revocation of the "Dear Colleague" letter is another horrific affront in a series of attacks against survivors by the current administration--which includes decreasing the number of employees investigating cases of sexual violence and hiding the list of schools being investigated for mishandling reports, not to mention the fact that Trump himself is an admitted assailant.

On September 7, DeVos encapsulated the argument against institutional insurances of protections for survivors by deliberately reframing the question of Title IX from one of civil rights and the safeguarding of the right to equal educational opportunities regardless of gender, to one of punishment against those who commit what she called "acts of cowardice and personal weakness."

DeVos argued that the letter protects survivors to the detriment of the accused, indignantly claiming that "the accused may or may not be told of the allegations before a decision is rendered," that "whatever evidence is presented may or may not be shown to all parties. Whatever witnesses--if allowed to be called--may or may not be cross-examined...The right to appeal may or may not be available to either party."

Ironically, the letter already aims to protect students--both complainants and the accused--precisely from instances of administrative negligence and abuses like the ones brought up by DeVos and other critics.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WHILE THE letter is a historical document in the sense that it is the first of its kind to lay out the rights of survivors of sexual violence and the ramifications for institutions if they are found to be in violation of Title IX, it's simply not true that it ignores the rights of the accused in the reporting and investigation processes.

To name just a few examples among many, the letter explicitly states that "parties must have an equal opportunity to present relevant witnesses and other evidence," "must be afforded similar and timely access to any information that will be used at the hearing," and "if a school provides for appeal of the findings or remedy, it must do so for both parties."

As Dana Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky wrote in the Washington Post, the letter provides those accused

with clearer and more robust federal protections than students accused of many non-sexual offenses. If schools are failing to live up to their legal obligations to accused students, the solution is for the Education Department to enforce those obligations, not undermine them.

On the other hand, the withdrawal of the "Dear Colleague" letter means in practice that survivors will now be entering an already re-victimizing and re-traumatizing process of bringing forward their cases without any actual guidance or clarification as to what their rights are--and therefore no way of ensuring that their schools are following Title IX procedures or holding them accountable when those procedures are violated.

Without the letter, the process will become much harder for students as well as educational institutions themselves.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

DEVOS' POLICY announcement is meant to have a chilling effect on reports of sexual violence. For most survivors, the "Dear Colleague" letter was the only tool they could wield to guarantee fair treatment.

Survivors, when they walk into meetings with school officials, will no longer be able to depend on the letter to know they can't be forced to take a leave of absence or continue living in the same dormitory as their assailant or be denied free counseling and medical services.

Administrations will have free reign to deny survivors what they need in order to stay in school and keep learning alongside their peers--for the sake of preserving their institutions' public image, rankings and endowments.

The message from the top came through loud and clear last week: The government isn't on our side. It doesn't care about survivors or education or discrimination.

So our message has to be louder and clearer. It's been 45 years since we won Title IX. We will not be silenced and we will not go back.