No one knows just how the Education Secretary will change the future of higher education. But the Trump-appointee has been especially secretive about her plans to implement, or roll back, the Obama-era guidelines that upped protections for sexual assault victims at colleges and universities across the country. On Thursday, Betsy DeVos will reveal her plans for Title IX, the Education Amendments Act that guarantees equal treatment to men and women in schools, during an event at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School, named after the late conservative justice.
Reports indicate that the Education Secretary's comments will be "centered around equal opportunity and equal protection for all" when she speaks at the Arlington, Virginia, campus, followed by a public announcement later that evening. Insiders expect her to address the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, an Obama-era directive which laid out guidelines for campus investigations of sexual assault — outside of the criminal justice system. This letter laid out what schools have to do when a student reports a sexual assault, prescribing how long investigations should take and how to evaluate evidence. Critics have called these campus inquiries "kangaroo courts," but sexual assault advocates and survivors say that these guidelines have been crucial in forcing schools to take rape accusations seriously and stemming the epidemic of campus sexual assault in the United States.
"She's not meeting simply with accused students, she's meeting with known hate groups."
A few months after being confirmed as Education Secretary, DeVos hosted a series of sessions with various groups impacted by Title IX, saying that these meetings "made it clear to me there's work to be done." In three 90-minute sessions, DeVos met with survivors of sexual assault, school representatives and experts, and, most controversially, men's rights groups that work on behalf of male students accused of sexual assault. DeVos has the power to undo the directive, which forces schools to obey its guidelines or risk federal funding.
Survivors, activists and politicians, like Dem. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Dem. Rep. Jackie Speier of California, blasted DeVos for meeting with these groups. They gathered in front of the Department of Education the day of the sessions to protest against potential changes to Title IX and share personal stories of sexual assault.
"She's not meeting simply with accused students, she's meeting with known hate groups. These aren't legitimate or well-intentioned actors that should be a part of the conversation," says Mahroh Jahangiri, Project Manager of the survivor and youth-led organization Know Your IX. "And the fact that the department is willing to take its cues from extremist hate groups is terrifying."
It's unprecedented for the Education Secretary to meet with groups that lobby on behalf of accused rapists. Bustle spoke with the three men's rights groups — the National Coalition for Men, SAVE: Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, and Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE) — to learn what they discussed with the secretary, and how, exactly, they want to change college's responses to campus sexual assault.
What Did Men's Rights Groups Say To DeVos?
Chris Perry, president of SAVE: Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, tells Bustle that the majority of their meeting was spent listening to students who he claims were falsely accused of sexual assault. "We shared stories about the flawed investigations, or lack thereof investigations," he says to Bustle. "We talked about the potential for confirmation bias in the investigations, and lack of resources available to somebody who has been accused who may need support as well."
Cynthia Garrett, co-president of Families Advocating For Campus Equality (FACE), says that during the session, DeVos was "very moved, you could tell ... everyone walked out of that room in a very solemn mood." Garrett, Perry, and Harry Crouch, president of the National Coalition for Young Men, believe many campuses are mishandling campus sexual assault investigations. They say there is a lack of transparency in the process, more evidence is needed to prove the assault occurred, and that falsely accused students are the "real" victims.
"They are incredibly traumatized," Garrett says about the accused students. "I think they felt like they did nothing wrong."
When discussing the Brock Turner case, for example, Garrett argues that the woman who was sexually assaulted shared equal responsibility with her assailant for the attack. (Turner was found guilty of sexually assaulting the unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The assault was discovered by two passersby, who chased down a laughing Turner. "Emily Doe" was found covered in blood and pine needles with "significant trauma" to her genitals.)
"[Turner's] vilified more than the worst mass murderer in this country. That family has been terrorized, that young man has been treated like public enemy number one," Garrett says. "Even if he did everything they said he did, he was almost as drunk as she was, they both walked out of there together, they fell on the lawn. Who knows what happened, whether she passed out or not. Maybe she did, I don't know... [They were] both so drunk that they didn't know what they were doing."
The powerful testimony Brock Turner's victim gave at his trial indicates something far more malicious at play, and Garrett and her colleagues' anecdotes aren't supported by data: only between 2 and 10 percent of sexual assaults accusations turn out to be false, according to the Department of Justice. On top of that, 63.3 percent of men at one university who self-reported committing rape or attempted rape admitted to carrying out repeat rapes, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics also released a study in 2016 that one in five female undergraduates have experienced some kind of sexual assault while in college, with sexual assault defined as rape and sexual battery, like forced kissing, touching, grabbing, or fondling. The study corroborates several others that found one in five female students experienced sexual assault.
Despite the numerous studies to the contrary, Crouch asserts that the National Coalition for Young Men is concerned with "the truth." The organization, which describes itself as, "a nonprofit educational organization that raises awareness about the ways sex discrimination affects men and boys," garnered criticism after one of its chapters published photos and names of women they consider to be "false accusers."
When asked about the incident, Crouch says the national office never published photos; rather, it was their North Carolina chapter — with the national office's permission. "If we knew the person has made a false allegation, would you want them running around with your brother?" Crouch asks. "No. Some of the people out there think since we did that we're into victim blaming — what a stupid, absurd statement to make."
Again, only between 2 and 10 percent of sexual assault accusations turn out to be false, according to the Department of Justice.
The Department of Education's press office declined to comment or verify what DeVos discussed with these groups, instead referring Bustle to previous statements made following the listening sessions.
During a press conference in July, DeVos said she wanted to "hear from all sides" of campus sexual assault, and described "the pain of some of the individuals" she heard during her session with the accused.
What Can DeVos Do About Campus Rape Investigations?
In her capacity as secretary, DeVos has the ability to undo the Obama administration's "Dear Colleague" letter, which urged schools to take matters of sexual assault more seriously or risk the loss of federal funding. The guidance compelled schools to beef up their response systems, as more survivors came forward and the number of sexual violence cases under investigation by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights quickly grew. Since April 2011, the government has conducted 429 investigations, with 71 cases resolved and 358 still open.
Yet, the federal guidance stirred controversy as well, particularly the requirement that college disciplinary proceedings for campus sexual assault must rely on a "preponderance of evidence" when deciding on cases — a caveat men's rights groups find problematic.
"It's deeply unfair and insulting to suggest that we're hysterically crying young women who've never thought twice about fair process."
A preponderance of evidence means that an accused person can be found guilty if there's a 51 percent chance the allegations against them are true. It is the default standard for most civil suits, while criminal cases adhere to a higher standard to establish the accused person's guilt. For the preponderance standard, both survivor and accused start on equal ground with their evidence evenly weighed.
In contrast, the "clear and convincing standard," which these groups advocate for, places the burden on survivors and their evidence. Hence, the accused doesn't have to prove that their evidence is stronger than the survivors — just that the survivors' evidence isn't definitive enough to prove their guilt. Scrutiny is on the survivor's story, as opposed to the accused.
"The accused starts with the scales weighed in their favor and the survivor will likely be unsuccessful unless the evidence they have is clear and convincing enough to persuade the school that sexual misconduct occurred," says Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, Senior Counsel with the National Women's Law Center, via email. "Thus, even if a school thinks it's more likely than not that an accused student sexually assaulted another student, the clear and convincing evidence standard would prevent them from taking action."
According to federal data obtained by The Washington Post, out of 478 sanctions distributed for sexual assault on around 100 campuses between 2012 and 2013, only 12 percent resulted in expulsion. Additionally, 237 sexual assault cases that year were ultimately dismissed, with no sanctions at all, and 44 ended in acquittal.
Perry says the higher burden of proof would be better for these cases and that they should not be investigated by schools in civil court, but by the criminal justice system. The website for his organization, SAVE, also asserts on its website that "female initiation of partner violence is the leading reason for the woman becoming a victim of subsequent violence," even though females were killed by intimate partners at twice the rate of males and were almost six times more likely to experience nonfatal intimate partner violence, according to a 2009 report from the Department of Justice.
"No student should have to go to school and be forced to sit next to her rapist."
"Obviously it's a very traumatic thing for any victim to go through a hearing, a trial, interviews, things of that nature. But at the same time, you have to balance that with the rights of the accused," he says. "The allegation may be completely true and everything that's said is completely true, but if there is insufficient evidence, I think finding them not responsible or not guilty in the criminal context is appropriate."
Survivors and their allies argue against using higher standards and forcing students to go through the criminal justice system, especially since it's an entirely different system with higher stakes and based around incarceration — and not providing equal access to education. Further, some survivors feel the criminal justice system re-victimizes them in the process of seeking justice, according to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Onyeka-Crawford says that in a legal context, under the clear and convincing evidence standard, courts have required witness statements to be distinctly remembered, precise and explicit, which can be difficult for victims of trauma.
The preponderance standard is the standard that's used in other civil procedures and it's unfair to burden victims of campus violence with a higher proceeding when none of these groups are calling for a different standard when it comes to plagiarism, or being thrown out of school for other physical violence ... This targeted outrage is specifically toward victims of sexual assault.
Jahangiri takes issue too with the assertion by the men's rights groups that the sexual assault guidance doesn't ensure fair process, especially since Title IX proceedings do require schools to provide the same protections to both sides.
"It's deeply unfair and insulting to suggest that we're hysterically crying young women who've never thought twice about fair process," she says to Bustle. "We have, and that's fundamentally why we're calling on this department to enforce civil rights law and make certain that schools have to prevent violence."
What Will Happen To Title IX?
DeVos already sparked concern regarding how she'd deal with campus sexual assault during her January confirmation hearing. At that time, she refused to answer whether or not she intended to uphold the 2011 Title IX guidance on campus sexual assault. For survivors and their allies, the secretary's meeting with men's rights groups is particularly alarming.
Onyeka-Crawford tells Bustle:
It's dangerous and concerning. ... She chose to meet with these groups that have a record of harassing survivors online. They say that survivors are to blame for their own victimization, they have been categorized as misogynistic groups, and really it's giving a platform to what are essentially hate groups.
Earlier in July, the Education Department came under fire after Candice Jackson, who leads the Department's Office for Civil Rights, told The New York Times that, "90 percent" of campus sexual assault accusations "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.'"
Jackson later apologized for the remarks, and said that what she said was "flippant, and I am sorry." But, she still faced backlash: Dem. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington called on DeVos to remove Jackson from office, stating that, and even with an apology, the remarks "crossed a serious line and highlighted her clear biases in this area."
Jahangiri tells Bustle:
The fact that the official tasked with enforcing our laws on gender discrimination is telling national publications that the majority of survivors are drunk and lying about regretted sex is totally baseless and perpetuates these myths that victims are not telling the truth, that they're imagining the violence that's happened to them, and contributes to a culture that pushes young people out of school after rampant gender-based violence. ... The government is perpetuating rape myths and while that official has apologized, these apologies aren't enough.
Jahangiri says that survivors across the country have to take action and call, email, and write to DeVos to tell her personally how much Title IX means to them.
While the future of the Title IX sexual assault guidelines remains uncertain under DeVos's tenure, what is clear is that the secretary cozied up with groups with a track record of minimizing the experiences of sexual assault survivors. And, for survivors and their allies, that's pretty scary.
"The practice of coming forward as a survivor is a really challenging thing and no one comes forward to get rich quick or for attention," Onyeka-Crawford says. "No student should have to go to school and be forced to sit next to her rapist."