Kirsten Gillibrand: Betsy DeVos Is Betraying Our Students

This week, as millions of students were arriving back on campus for the new school year, the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, announced a disturbing change in how the Department of Education will deal with campus sexual assault under her watch. Instead of using her position to enforce, or even strengthen, the Department of Education's guidelines that have protected so many students – including sexual assault survivors and students accused of committing sexual assault – Secretary DeVos told CBS News that she wants to "revoke or rescind" them. She says that the Obama administration went too far in supporting the rights of survivors of campus sexual assault, but I couldn't disagree more.

This decision betrays our students, plain and simple – and it's especially egregious that she announced it during the period known as the "red zone," which is the first few weeks of the school year when new students are more vulnerable and more likely to be sexually assaulted. With so many sexual assaults still happening on college campuses all over the country, we should be doing everything we can to make our sexual assault prevention and enforcement policies stronger – not weakening them, not jeopardizing them, and certainly not taking them away.

The policies are based on a civil rights law called Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in schools. When Congress passed Title IX 45 years ago, it was unprecedented because it required that all students have equal access to everything at their schools – including safety. Title IX was groundbreaking in the fight against campus sexual assault. Unfortunately, for many years, college and university administrators did not have clear instructions from the government about how they were supposed to deal with sexual assault when it occurred on their campuses. On one side, many sexual assault survivors felt they weren't believed by their schools. On the other, many students accused of committing sexual assault didn't feel they could adequately defend themselves.

To fix this, in 2011, the Department of Education announced new guidelines to explain the requirements of Title IX and help colleges and universities comply with the law. The guidelines gave our schools a process with clear rules, so that both sides in a sexual assault case could finally have access to fair hearings. These are the guidelines that Secretary DeVos wants to take away. With an average of one in five undergraduate women in America experiencing sexual assault while in college, this is an enormous mistake.

First, the Title IX guidelines make sure our college and university presidents know their responsibilities for addressing sexual assault on their campuses – which many of them weren't doing before, or are still struggling to do now. We need this guidance because too many schools still aren't getting it right; there are 257 colleges and universities currently under investigation by the Department of Education for potential violations of Title IX related to sexual violence. The good news is that more schools than ever are paying attention to this issue, and are trying meet Title IX's requirements for addressing campus sexual assault. This is a huge change, and it happened in large part because so many campus sexual assault survivors demanded action from their schools and the Department of Education. The last thing we should do now is abandon all the progress we've already made.

Second, the Title IX guidelines give our students the tools they need to hold their schools accountable when sexual assault crimes occur, so that their schools can protect them from further harm. For example, the Title IX guidelines prohibit any form of retaliation against a sexual assault survivor who reports an assault – which survivors have described as a second betrayal after the initial crime. If a school fails to take steps to prevent or even respond strongly to retaliation by an alleged perpetrator, then the school is failing to meet its obligations under Title IX. The Title IX guidelines help students and parents understand their rights under the law. They empower them. We should keep them in place and continue to push schools to comply with Title IX.

Third, the Title IX guidelines make sure that schools have clear procedures that are fair to both survivors and the accused. For example, the process that schools use to resolve sexual assault complaints must include an opportunity for both parties – the survivors and the accused – to present witnesses and other evidence. Schools are also required to provide both sides with access to any information that will be used at a disciplinary hearing. Without clear guidance from the Department of Education, the process for resolving complaints of campus sexual assault won't be orderly, it won't be consistent, and it won't be fair. No student should ever have to fear sexual assault on campus, and no student should ever have to fear an unfair disciplinary process on campus either. The Title IX guidelines protect the rights of both.

The Department of Education should never turn its back on sexual assault survivors – and I'm ready to fight to make sure they don't. If this also matters to you, then I encourage you to raise your voice and speak out as forcefully as you can about it. We must keep our campuses safe, and to do that, we need good, strong, and fair enforcement of Title IX.

So where do we go from here? My bipartisan bill to fight campus sexual assault – the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, or CASA – would require fair treatment to student sexual assault survivors and to students accused of committing sexual assault crimes, because I don't want to see an innocent person punished any more than I want to see a guilty person let off the hook. By saying she plans to revoke or rescind the Title IX guidelines, Secretary DeVos has shown that she does not take the rights of survivors seriously, but I will do everything in my power as a senator to fight to support our sexual assault survivors. I urge everyone who cares about safety and fairness on our college campuses to join me in this fight and demand that our government officials take campus sexual assault seriously, pass CASA, and preserve the Title IX guidelines.

Kirsten Gillibrand is a Democratic senator from New York. Follow her on Twitter. This appears in Cosmopolitan today.


September 14, 2017

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