It's a wonder Betsy DeVos has found the time to begin a systematic rollback of Title IX. Seriously, she's been busy protecting for-profit colleges, decreasing protections for student loan recipients, and appointing a for-profit, private lending tycoon to head Federal Financial Aid. But somehow, she's found time, and it's looking like the beginning of a tough road for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses.
You've probably heard of Title IX. If you haven't, it's that landmark education amendment from the 1970s that prohibits students from being discriminated against for their gender. It's the law that ensures that equally qualified women have the right to slay in law school, and, perhaps most importantly, has made sure issues of sexual violence, once considered a private issue for female students to deal with quietly, warrant the disciplinary attention deserved.
But under Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, the fundamentals of Title IX are hitting the back burner, starting with an internal memo sent out by the department's Office of Civil Rights early last month telling employees to ditch priority treatment for cases of sexual assault and walk back plans for systematic investigations surrounding complaints.
"Effective immediately, there is no mandate that any one type of complaint is automatically treated differently than any other type of complaint with respect to the scope of investigation, the type or amount of data needed to conduct the investigation, or the amount or type of data needed to conduct the investigation, or the amount or type of review or oversight needed over the investigation by Headquarters," reads the memo first published by ProPublica.
You heard that right: The office tasked with protecting the civil rights of students is being told to avoid investigations into systematic attacks on the civil rights of students.
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"We know from the school context and the courts that while there's widespread skepticism of survivors in general, it's particularly acute for women of color and LGBTQ survivors," Brodsky told VICE Impact.
The Title IX backlog currently has 344 open investigations compared to only 64 resolved cases.
And the numbers back it up. One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And while the data on sexual assault victims by race is limited, research suggests that women of color are at increased risk, with Native American women almost twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than any other race.
When the numbers turn to transgender students, estimates jump as high as 25 percent. That's right, as many as one in four transgender people may be sexually assaulted while in college. To make matters worse, DeVos has already significantly rolled back Title IX protections for trans students, siding with the right of individual school districts and institutions to interpret protections.
DeVos says changing procedure is the only way to clear the Title IX backlog, which currently has 344 open investigations compared to only 64 resolved cases, but sexual assault survivors are saying that while the backlog is bad, the proposed solution is even worse. Luckily, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill are on the case, calling for DeVos to reverse her memo all together.
"We expect secretary DeVos to do her job, which is to protect students. She and her administration have given us reason to believe that they will not live up to that."
"We have seen through our work on this issue that often if a school fails to protect students from sexual assault or mishandles an incident of sexual assault that this is rarely an isolated case on that campus," Senator Gillibrand wrote in a letter to DeVos. "The goal of the [Office for Civil Rights] must be to protect students and ensure that they are provided a safe and equitable educational experience. We believe that limiting investigations into campus sexual assault is an improper way to clear the current backlog and does not uphold the Department's responsibility to enforce Title IX."
It's unclear what DeVos will do next. She's alluded to challenging the preponderance of evidence standards for Title IX, enforced in President Obama's Dear Colleague Letter, saying that the standard deprives accused students of their legal rights. "a system without due process ultimately serves no one in the end," she said at a news conference following meetings with victims of sexual assault and accused students.
But sexual assault survivors and advocates have been quick to point out that rape and sexual assault is only misreported about eight percent of the time, which is about the same, or lower, than the rate of misreporting for other crimes. This means that at least 92 percent of students who report sexual assault greatly benefit from preponderance of evidence standards, which is designed to support the stories of victims.
"We expect secretary DeVos to do her job, which is to protect students. She and her administration have given us reason to believe that they will not live up to that," Brodsky said. "Those of us at the National Women's Law Center and our partners will continue to hold schools accountable and represent survivors when they're mistreated. Whether or not the department's doing their job, we're doing ours."
The first step in protecting Title IX is knowing your own rights under the law. Visit Know Your Title IX to read up on your rights, so you can advocate for protections at your own school. You can also give your elected officials a call to tell them you expect their advocacy for Title IX protections at state institutions. And, of course, make sure you know the facts about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, and share that info in your own community.