Survivors of sexual assault and their advocates converged on the Department of Education July 13 in defense of the Obama administration's 2011 "Dear Colleague Letter" (DCL). The letter contains a set of guidelines for how schools should proceed in cases of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of gender-based violence. "It helps survivors understand their rights and assert them," says Know Your IX's Sejal Singh. "The DCL clarifies all existing law in a document so survivors can understand what they are owed."
Survivors met with DeVos inside the Department of Education, while outside additional survivors and advocates held a SpeakOut, where they read anonymous statements from victims of gender-based violence on campus. "It wasn't a protest so much as a sharing of survivor stories," says End Rape on Campus (EROC) executive director Annie Clark.
"It was a really powerful experience," says Maya Weinstein, a survivor who volunteered at the SpeakOut. Singh estimates a crowd of approximately 120 people gathered to speak and hear survivors' stories, including college and high school students, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Jackie Speier, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and former head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice Vanita Gupta
Although no official guidelines have been made or revoked regarding sexual assault, DeVos' tenure as education secretary has been marked with troubling incidents for civil rights advocates. During her confirmation hearings, she refused to commit to keeping the DCL in place. The DOE rolled back Title IX protections for transgender students earlier this year. And in June, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within the Education Department said it would be scaling back its investigations, no longer requiring local investigators to look for systemic issues in civil rights offenses. Assistant secretary of the OCR, Candice Jackson, was quoted in the New York Times as saying 90 percent of sexual assault claims "fall into the category of 'we were both drunk,' 'we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'"
"The Department of Education echoing the very invalidating things schools say to survivors, friends say, the police say to discourage reporting," says Singh. "There is also no evidence of that claim." Jackson later apologized for her remarks, saying they were not characteristic of her work in the OCR.
Inside the ED, DeVos met with survivors and organizations fighting to stop campus sexual assault. "Most of the meeting was spent with student survivors sharing their experiences and how Title IX helped them, or in cases where colleges weren't in compliance with Ttle IX, how that interfered with their education," Clark tells Broadly. She believes that survivors' lived experience should be at the forefront of DeVos' mind: "If you are making decisions on policy, you need to speak with the stakeholders that the policy is going to affect. If not, I'm not sure where you're getting your information or on what you're basing your decisions."
"The National Coalition for Men in particular has harassed survivors online and revealed their personal information online. I'm not sure why she met with that group."
However, during her talks on Thursday, DeVos also met with those who feel sexual assault investigations on campus are unfairly biased against the accused, including members of men's rights organizations. DeVos was widely reported to have met with members of the National Coalition for Men (NCFM), Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), and Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE). "To give equal weight [to these groups], when we know that the false accusation rate [for sexual assault] is the same if not lower than any other crime, perpetuates rape culture," says Clark. "The National Coalition for Men in particular has harassed survivors online and revealed their personal information online. I'm not sure why she met with that group."
DeVos held a press conference after her day of meetings, which she characterized as "emotionally draining." DeVos said that she didn't want survivors to be "swept under the rug," but she also wanted to address the feelings of the accused, telling reporters "their stories are not often shared."
Maya Weinstein remembers being asked to take her rapist's feelings into account while attending George Washington University. "I was raped during my first semester," she says, "by another student. I reported my experience to the university approximately six months later to obtain a no-contact order because he was still harassing me." Weinstein says her experience reporting her rape with GWU was drawn-out and enervating. "They consistently violated their own policy and procedures," she says. "They violated my rights."
Weinstein says her rapist was officially banned from residence halls, but she still saw him on campus. "I contacted campus police and they had no record of my case," she says. She eventually found out that the director of the conduct office allowed him to be on campus for a fraternity party. Weinstein says was told by the director, "'He deserves to be a student too, and you need to understand how difficult this has been for him.' After that my interactions with the university became more adversarial." Weinstein says she relied on Title IX as her leverage to speak out against her school's gap between its sexual assault policy and procedure.
"The DCL is important because no survivor who is a freshman in college and experiencing trauma should have to go through 30 years of case law and regulations to understand what her rights are," says Singh, who says she experienced sexual harassment personally at Columbia University.
"I wound up switching majors to avoid [my attacker]," she says. "Had my school been compliant with Title IX, I could have come to them and pursued my education without this fear hanging over me." Without the DCL, Singh fears that "we'll go back to the days of students dropping out or leaving school to avoid their rapists."
Advocates for the accused said DeVos was "extremely attentive" to their stories, according to FACE co-president Cynthia Garrett. But EROC also found DeVos willing to listen to their stories. "DeVos did indicate that she was interested in meeting with more groups," says Clark. "Starting next week, we will be calling on Secretary DeVos to meet with more survivors and hear their stories." EROC is urging DeVos to travel to different schools around the country, so that she can hear from those who cannot easily travel to Washington to lobby for their cause.
If she follows their advice, DeVos will have a large group to talk to; according to the Department of Justice, one in five women experience sexual assault while attending college.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Weinstein's alleged rapist was banned from campus. He was banned from residence halls.