In her four months in office, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has already racked up her share of critics, who have raised concerns about her qualifications, her support for school choice programs, and her ability to protect LGBTQ students. Now, she can officially count the National Women’s Law Center as another. On Monday, the NWLC announced it filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education to hold DeVos accountable for enforcing Title IX protections for sexual assault victims.
First introduced in conjunction with the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX was put into law to protect students from gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault. In recent years, a number of reforms meant to help sexual assault victims on university campuses have been promoted by the Department of Education under Title IX. However, NWLC has been disappointed by how the Department of Education has responded to their request for information on university responses to sexual assault since DeVos has been its leader.
Alexandra Brodsky, a fellow at NWLC who authored a blog post on the center's decision to file a lawsuit, tells Bustle that the center originally filed a request to the Department of Education under the Freedom of Information Act back in January. (For those unfamiliar, the Freedom of Information Act allows American citizens to access government records for the sake of accountability and transparency.)
"In our request we asked both for the list of schools that were under investigation for sexual harassment or assault, and any resolution agreements or other documents marking the end of investigations, so we could see how the department was holding schools responsible," Brodsky tells Bustle on the phone.
However, in the months following NWLC's January request, there has been no response from DeVos, or anyone from the Department of Education, according to NWLC. It was this silence that pushed the NWLC to file a complaint against the DOE, which you can read here.
Bustle reached out to the Department of Education for comment, a spokesman said they were unable to provide comments about the pending litigation.
Brodsky says that there has been communication since they filed the lawsuit: "They sent us their first two pages of records, so it’s clear the lawsuit got their attention. That being said, there are still many records that haven’t been sent and are crucial."
While the lawsuit itself is notable, Brodsky tells Bustle that for the women of the NWLC, the main priority is making sure DeVos enforces protection for students, particularly survivors of sexual assault on campus.
"I definitely worry that if schools aren’t held accountable, schools won’t hold abusers accountable, because they won’t have the incentive to do so," Brodsky tells Bustle, "It’s the Department of Education’s job to enforce civil rights law, and we will hold them to that. Even if the department isn’t doing their job, we are doing our job. Schools should not feel absolved from accountability because the law center and our partners are working harder than ever to make sure that survivors can hold their schools accountable."
During the January confirmation hearings for DeVos, when asked by Philadelphia Sen. Bob Casey whether she would work to uphold the 2011 Title IX guidance about campus sexual assault, DeVos responded by saying, "It would be premature for me to do that today," according to a report from The Washington Post.
Those comments combined with the Department of Education's alleged unresponsiveness, Brodsky says the NWLC is on alert for the sake of sexual assault victims.
"I don’t think we can assume based on their FOIA response that they’re not enforcing Title IX," Brodsky says. "We can’t jump to that conclusion yet, but if survivors and their advocates don’t know they can trust the department, the department is useless to them. Because if survivors don’t know they can turn to their department, they won’t."