DeVos changes fail to combat sexual assault

Rajya Atluri

Editor’s note: Atluri previously worked at The Daily Texan as a reporter.

In 2014, John Oliver invited dozens of scientists on his show to illustrate the statistics that overwhelmingly support climate change rather than sticking to the traditional “one for, one against” model that news programming commonly featured. His point was that 97 percent of scientists believe humans are affecting the environment. However, the disproportionate coverage of climate change deniers in the media conceals this statistic.  I couldn’t help thinking about this episode when reading Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ recent comments regarding Title IX.

DeVos addressed several of the issues related to sexual assault and harassment on college campuses. While DeVos clearly affirmed the need to confront campus sexual violence head-on, with each point about prevention and seeking justice for survivors she also added a point about those who have been accused. Don’t get me wrong — no one should face a false accusation, and universities should do everything in their power to ensure students aren’t wrongfully punished. Yet, when DeVos gives undue focus to the accused, particularly to those who have been falsely accused, it depicts sexual violence on campuses in a different light and portrays a false sense of reality. College students are less likely to even report sexual assault in the first place compared to their non-college attending peers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 80 percent of college student sexual assault incidences go unreported to the police. The percentage of false accusations, though fiercely debated in the media, is said to range between 2-10 percent. These numbers paint a very different picture than the one that showcases a falsely accused student next to every victim.

In a society already fraught with ideas like “she was asking for it” or “she shouldn’t have been wearing that,” it matters how we talk about sexual violence. And the reality is that students who have experienced sexual violence face a myriad of hurdles to heal and seek justice.

To take the first step in combating campus sexual assault, the Obama administration released the “Dear Colleague” letter through the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. This letter provided guidance on Title IX by including sexual assault under the law’s anti-discrimination policy. Essentially, this pushed for further accountability of universities and aided survivors in having options other than pursuing a criminal trial. It also set in place the “preponderance standard” in which it is determined whether the evidence shows that the incident was more likely than not to have occurred. These changes were made to make it easier for survivors to come forward and many felt that they could finally feel like school administrators were on their side.

The media attention that resulted from this brought campus sexual assault to the forefront of many students’ minds. Movements such as Not On My Campus have helped students from a variety of backgrounds come together to help end this problem. Universities took greater steps towards implementing policies and procedures to help survivors.

Now, DeVos seeks to have schools less involved in the process. DeVos said in her remarks that the Obama administration pressured schools to create systems that divest accused students of their rights. However, the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard used during criminal trials and universities does not have the same powers as criminal courts. While they aren’t responsible for criminal punishment, they are responsible for protecting equal education, and Title IX cases fall under civil rights disputes in which the preponderance standard may be more appropriate. Sexual assault cases can be hard to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” with the majority occurring out of the public eye and with post-assault trauma making it difficult for survivors to relive their experiences.

In its place, DeVos is planning to implement a notice-and-comment process. One of the concerns she had with the Obama administration’s approach was that “schools have been compelled by Washington to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment.”

Decreasing the role of universities in the process not only provides less options for survivors but also takes a step back in making sexual assault prevention a priority in education. While it’s important that a fair process is provided for students on campuses, completely taking away the progress of the Obama administration can send a message that survivors are not a priority.

Atluri is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Dallas. She serves as the director of the Women’s Resource Agency in Student Government.