Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declared last week the methods by which college campuses handle sexual assault constitute a “failed system.” In a speech at George Mason University, DeVos said the Obama administration “burdened schools with increasingly elaborate and confusing guidelines” that her department now intends to review and improve.
When 11.2 percent of all students and 23.1 percent of female undergraduates, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, experience rape or sexual assault, and two-thirds of all episodes of sexual violence are unreported, DeVos has good reason to say the system has failed.
What she does not have good reason to propose is that the priorities in repairing this failed system should lie anywhere other than with the victims – not of failed due process, but of sexual violence.
Given both the statistical likelihood and social consequence of sexual assault, reparations should begin with the victims.
Even if it were not for the compulsion of human decency to be attentive to survivors of sexual violence, the logical clarity available when one tries to minimize harm necessitates that we improve the process by which students report sexual assault and the quality of the legal counsel reporting students receive.
Of all reported sexual assaults, the vast majority are true accounts. Three different studies on sexual assault accusations in United States communities published by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center indicate that between 2 and 10 percent of accusations are false, which suggests that we would be fair in directing our attention first toward the more prevalent and therefore urgent issues that affect survivors.
While the Editorial Board recognizes the necessity to provide all students with due process, and while we also recognize the concern that accused students may be seen as guilty until proven innocent, we would like to emphasize that only seven of every 1,000 instances of rape cases result in a felony conviction for the accused.
And, of course, as Brock Turner's case brings to light, these reprimands are often heinously insensitive to the severity of the crime.
We feel that DeVos' suggestion of alternative models for the handling of sexual assault will level disproportionate harm on survivors if greater legal protections are granted to accused parties prior to the implementation of such measures as, for example, clarification of Obama-era guidelines and improved treatment of students who report.
DeVos cited a female student who was required to assemble her own case at a university disciplinary hearing.
“Without any legal training whatsoever, she had to prepare an opening statement, fix exhibits and find witnesses,” DeVos said.
And yet, her seeming delicacy in understanding the gravity of sexual assault is tarnished by some ill-made remarks. For instance, she once said, “Any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation.” She also said, “If everything is harassment, then nothing is.”
The tone of DeVos' speech, as well as the context of the Trump administration’s influence on whatever reforms the Department of Education suggests and implements, gives us reason to fear that the system will continue to fail.
Apparently, the reform process will begin with “a transparent notice-and-comment process” that considers public feedback.
Well, Secretary DeVos, notice our comment: Survivors’ lives are in your hands. Do not let them down.
The Editorial Board wrote contrasting opinions on Betsy DeVos and Title IX. Read the dissenting editorial here.