On Thursday, President Donald Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that her department would review and change Title IX guidelines against campus sexual misconduct implemented by former President Barack Obama in 2011. DeVos is expected to weaken the Obama guidelines, which encouraged universities and colleges to investigate sexual misconduct cases.
A regressive move like this would have immediate implications for college students and those close to them. However, DeVos's Title IX move could be significant for women across America, whether they're students or not. Because when taken in context, this move would mark yet another effort by the Trump administration's push to eliminate anti-discrimination measures, which are crucial for all American women.
For student survivors, rescinding the Obama guidelines could be a detriment to their ability to ensure that their assailants are no longer a threat — to them or anyone else. Given the secretary's focus on those accused of sexual assault and her past statements about how the 2011 guidelines politicized DOE, it's likely that DeVos will roll back Title IX sexual misconduct protections in a way that will hurt schools' efforts to investigate sexual assault cases.
On one level, the move would signal a tone shift to universities that could suggest that the government is less interested in ensuring students can have safe, assault-free lives. So said Jess Davidson, the managing director of End Rape on Campus, according to the Huffington Post:
I’m very concerned about what it means for the federal government’s view on sexual assault, and their view on survivors, for them to possibly rescind a guidance that is critical in helping students understand what their own rights are. That is a very bad leadership signal and I believe it would have a trickle-down effect to university presidents and to other community leaders. If the government doesn’t think that this is important than why should they?
Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, echoed Davidson's concerns, saying that rolling back guidelines will encourage colleges to avoid investigating sexual misconduct rather than confronting it head on, according to the Daily Intelligencer.
"[I]t sends a frightening message to all students: Your government does not have your back if your rights are violated," Graves said in a statement. "This misguided approach signals a green light to sweep sexual assault further under the rug. We refuse to return to the days when schools could mistreat survivors with impunity.”
Women, students or not, could be unjustly hurt by such regressive policy shifts.
Furthermore, according to Davidson, rescinding the 2011 Obama guidelines — also known as the Dear Colleague Letter, since Obama's memo began that way — could make it more confusing for schools as they attempt to investigate sexual misconduct. Davidson told the Huffington Post:
The people who use the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter the most ― or are supposed to use it the most ― are Title IX administrators, the people who are conducting these investigations on campuses across the country. It’s going to be really hard for them to do their jobs effectively if they don’t have this kind of guidance. Schools need more clarification, not less.
But DeVos' move could herald further rollbacks against anti-discrimination protection for marginalized communities — which, given the Trump administration's first 100 days in office, isn't an outlandish thought.
Women, students or not, could be unjustly hurt by such regressive policy shifts since, as a historically oppressed identity group, women need the protection of the law. Legal codes that make sex- and gender-based discrimination illegal don't completely eradicate such behavior. (America was established on patriarchal values, after all.) However, anti-discrimination rules and the proper enforcement of them helps women and those belonging to other marginalized communities live better, safer lives.
The notion that anti-discrimination rules help people is particularly true of anti-assault rules. Opening a sexual misconduct case often requires that the victim report the incident to college officials, and guidelines such as Obama's demonstrate to victims that this painful process will not be futile. According to an Office of Civil Rights report, 164 campus sexual assault complaints were filed in 2015, compared to 11 in 2009, two years before the Obama Title IX guidelines.
And what was perhaps the most symbolic gesture (or lack of a gesture) of DeVos' Thursday speech was that sexual assault survivor advocates were not a part of the announcement event, according to those protesting outside the George Mason University auditorium where DeVos delivered her remarks.
"No survivor groups were invited to today’s decision," Davidson told the Huffington Post. "The fact that they’re not in the room is not reflective of who’s actually going to be impacted by the policy. We’re gathering outside the speech to show how important survivor voices are."