By Kyle Mannisi, Opinions Editor
In a speech last Thursday, Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that significant changes would be made to Title IX guidelines. DeVos has not been clear as to which specific changes she plans to makes, although it will likely include reducing penalties for schools that violate Title IX.
Originally signed into law in 1972, Title IX ensured that women had equal access to on-campus sports and athletic scholarships. In the 1990s, Title IX was redefined by Supreme Court cases to include sexual assault and harassment, although these protections went largely unenforced. In 2011, the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division published a “Dear Colleague” letter to inform universities that noncompliance with Title IX would result in a withdrawal of federal funds from the school. This was a marked change, as there had historically never been a penalty for violating the rules of Title IX.
DeVos wants to make changes because she feels that due process is being obstructed by the Obama-era statute. She believes that students who are accused of wrongdoing do not have an equal opportunity to defend themselves before decision-making bodies. It is disappointing to see this regressive attitude exhibited by an Education Secretary whose job responsibilities include combatting the scourge of on-campus sexual misconduct.
Universities are money-making entities that have budgets and quotas to fill, meaning that administrators can benefit by taking highly unethical shortcuts to keep the name of their university untarnished. Often times, rape and sexual assault allegations have been swept under the rug in fear of bad publicity for the college. When as many as 65 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported, any policy that makes it more difficult for victims to come forward should be firmly resisted.
DeVos also feels that “any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation… if everything is harassment, then nothing is.” This flippant attitude towards something as serious as sexual harassment is disturbing. We should be celebrating a system that is highly effective at identifying abusive behavior on our college campuses, not trying to dismantle it. DeVos’ argument that ”if everything is harassment, then nothing is,” inherently sides with the abuser and grossly undermines the rights of the victim. Currently only two to eight percent of filed sexual assault reports are falsified, so it does not make sense to shift focus from victims to the falsely accused.
For decades, women who had been sexually assaulted on college campuses were intimidated by universities that had more interest in keeping victims quiet than seeking justice and punishing offending students. One popular contemporary example that comes to mind is convicted rapist Brock Turner, who spent only three months in jail despite being found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault in 2016.
The officials who work with Title IX currently have the power to investigate and suspend or expel students from universities, but not much else. In her speech, DeVos consistently misrepresents the power of Title IX professionals, who are bound by jurisdiction and do not have subpoena powers. They also cannot bring criminal charges against the accused.
DeVos’ actions are backwards, with more focus on protecting people who have been potentially falsely accused rather than protecting victims of sexual assault and preserving their right to pursue an education in a safe environment. It will also reduce penalties for universities that do not meet Title IX standards, thus making it easier for sexual misconduct to go unreported or unresolved.