Identity

Has the Trump Administration Stopped Investigating Campus Rape?

A lawsuit brought by National Women's Law Center alleges the Department of Education has refused to release records relating to Title IX investigations, leaving sexual assault victims wondering "whether they can turn to the agency for help."
June 12, 2017, 7:01pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, advocates have worked tirelessly to expose and fight against the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses and K-12 schools. Under the Obama administration, they had a powerful tool in their arsenal: Title IX, a federal civil rights law that requires federally funded schools to address rape and sexual assault as a form of sex discrimination. It also gives the Department of Education the power to investigate instances where schools have allegedly balked on their responsibility to protect students .

Advertisement

The Obama administration spent a significant amount of time strengthening the protections students are guaranteed under Title IX. Now that Trump has taken office, things are far less clear: Trump's extremist secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has been vocal about her desire to deregulate the school system, and it's still uncertain if the Department of Education (ED) is still looking into violations of rape victims' civil rights under her watch. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos said that it would be "premature" to commit to upholding former President Obama's guidance explaining Title IX's protections for victims of sexual assault.

Read more: Baylor University Allowed 'at Least 52 Acts of Rape' in Four Years, Suit Alleges

In January, the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) filed a Freedom of Information Act petition for documents "reflecting the enforcement or lack thereof" of Title IX. The agency's response was troubling: According to a lawsuit filed today by the NWLC, the ED has evaded the request for six months now.

The suit states that the ED told the NWLC that they could not fulfill the petition "due to the backlog of requests and the competing demands for the time of staff that are working to respond to [NWLC's] request." Public agencies typically have a 20-day limit to release records following a valid FOIA request or provide the requestor an opportunity to limit the scope of the request; Alexandra Brodsky, an attorney with the NWLC, says the lack of response violates the law.

Advertisement

"It's really startling that we have not received a single record. We have not even received an estimate for when they would get us the records. It's just be radio silence," she said.

This stands in sharp contrast to the Obama Administration's transparency regarding Title IX investigations, and it could also indicate that Title IX's protections for rape victims could be in jeopardy.

We worry that the Department wants to return us to the old days of inaction and opacity.

"We know, from the past few years, that government enforcement is so key to combatting sexual harassment in schools," Brodsky said, noting that before the Obama administration, the Education Department did not actively enforce Title IX. "We worry that the Department wants to return us to the old days of inaction and opacity."

The lack of clear information about the future of Title IX compliance means that many survivors are unsure if they still have federal recourse, she added. "Unless we know what the Department is doing, survivors and their advocates can't know whether they can turn to the agency for help. We have clients who ask us whether they should file a complaint with the Department of Ed. and right now we can't tell them how the department is likely to process their complaints."

The NWLC has asked the US District Court in the District of Columbia to release the requested records. "This is always the question when you're dealing with the Trump administration and Secretary DeVos' Department of Education: What motivated by malice, and what's motivated by incompetence? It's deeply worrisome that they won't release records that would give us some insight into their activities," Brodsky said. "Without evidence to the contrary, I'd take Betsy DeVos at her word that she's not committed to civil rights law."