Updated 10:35 pm, Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is looking to overhaul Obama administration policies, which put the heat on colleges and universities to investigate allegations of sexual assault and warned schools they would lose federal dollars if they did not comply.
DeVos is slated to meet Thursday with women who have complained of assault, as well as accused male students and their parents. The meetings come as a key Education Department official has cast a scornful eye on those making complaints.
Candice E. Jackson, acting head of the DOE‘s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), told The New York Times that in most investigations there is “not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.”
“Frankly, the accusations — 90 percent of them — 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 remark by Jackson, formerly a Trump campaign operative, drew an immediate, sharp rebuke from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions.
“I am deeply disturbed by this message coming from the person you have selected to lead the Office of Civil Rights. At the least, this suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of campus sexual assault and suggests that OCR is not prepared to take accounts from survivors seriously,” Murray said in a letter to DeVos.
In a recent study, cited by Murray, 23.1 percent of female undergraduates at 27 universities said they had experienced sexual assault or misconduct through physical force. The study shows “a continued need for oversight and enforcement of Title IX provisions,” said Murray.
The Obama administration laid down guidelines under Title IX, a section of a 1972 federal law that guarantees gender equality in education.
According to the Department of Justice, Title IX is “a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” It has been used in the promotion of once-starved women’s athletic programs.
Sexual assault cases have shaken such campuses as Stanford, where a swim team member was let off easy after assaulting a passed-out student. By contrast, accusations made against members of the Duke University lacrosse team were later proven false.
At her Senate confirmation hearing, DeVos did not commit to upholding the Office of Civil Rights guidance given during the Obama administration.
The 2011 guidance told college administrators to use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard in judging allegations of sexual assault. Lawyers for accused students have urged use of a stricter “clear and convincing” evidence standard.
On Wednesday, however, 118 women who have endured campus sexual assault wrote to Secretary DeVos and asked: “Exactly who are you here to serve?”
“From the moment we were raped or assaulted, the question of who protects us has haunted us all,” they wrote. “Collectively, we represent thousands of instances of institutional failure at colleges, universities and K-12 schools.
“We suffered immensely, as did our academics, relationships, and overall well-being. Institutional betrayal forced many of us, and countless others, to leave school.”
The Obama administration walked its talk on the issue. Three years ago, the Department of Education put out a list of schools which had faced civil rights investigations related to reports of sexual violence.
Jackson has, however, lampooned it as a “list of shame” and has argued that it includes campuses where sexual assaults have not been established.
Murray shot back: “I am concerned that her statement shows a clear lack of understanding about the importance of transparency in the federal government.”
The Washington senator led opposition to Devos’ confirmation by the Senate as Education secretary. DeVos was confirmed by a 51-50 vote, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a tie vote on the confirmation.
Writing to DeVos, Murray said: “I strongly urge you to continue to publicly report schools under Title IX investigation so students, families and schools can work together to make progress toward addressing sexual violence on campus.”