After months of ignoring their requests to meet, the Department of Education’s Betsy DeVos is holding a 90-minute “roundtable discussion” with advocates and survivors of campus sexual assault on Thursday morning. But the meeting is one in a series that will allot just as much time to men’s rights activists and groups representing those who claim to be wrongfully accused, furthering fears that the current administration will weaken enforcement of critical Title IX protections for survivors of sexual assault across the nation.
End Rape on Campus, SurvJustice, National Women’s Law Center, Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Transgender Equality, and Girls INC are among the advocacy groups meeting with DeVos Thursday morning at 10 am in a closed-door meeting at the Department of Education building in Washington DC. According to a release sent out by the department, the DOE will also meet with men’s rights groups and those representing individuals who claim to be wrongfully accused, and finally, with college administrators and lawyers. Emails sent to the Department of Education’s press office, Betsy DeVos, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, and Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson requesting comment on the meetings were not returned.
“This administration has given a number of indications that they are looking into shredding prior Title IX enforcement guidance and this is yet another bad sign for the enforcement of Title IX, that they’re only spending 90 minutes with survivors and nearly two times as much time with folks who are very much concerned about the wrongfully accused,” said Jess Davidson, managing director of End Rape on Campus, who said that university lawyers are largely critical of the Obama administration’s regulations.
“It is hard to feel like that is a balanced conversation geared towards figuring out the best way to keep students learning, and instead feels like they’ve already made up their minds to betray survivors,” said Alexandra Brodsky, Skadden Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center. “I hope that I’m wrong. I really hope that this is an honest and fruitful exchange.” In an op-ed published in Teen Vogue on Wednesday, 114 survivors signed a letter to Betsy DeVos asking her, “Exactly who are [the schools] here to serve? The students, or themselves?”
DeVos will be meeting with men’s rights groups immediately following her session with sexual assault survivors and advocates, including the National Coalition for Men and SAVE: Stop Abusive and Violent Environments. As ThinkProgress noted, SAVE has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a group that aims “to roll back services for victims of domestic abuse and penalties for their tormentors, while working to return the focus to the ‘true victims of abuse’—the falsely accused.” The National Coalition for Men has supported the Republican draft of the Violence Against Women Act (which strips protections for LGBTQ people), has sued women-only spaces for discriminating against men, and its president Harry Couch has blamed victims of domestic violence for “aggravating” their attacker. Crouch declined to comment for this article and SAVE did not respond to a request for comment.
Another point of tension is the lack of transparency around the meetings, says Mahroh Jahangiri, executive director of Know Your IX. Jackson’s office reached out to Know Your IX in June to invite them to Thursday’s meeting, but after two phone calls, Jahangiri says that the DOE stopped responding to the organization. “This entire process has been erratic, and there really is no rhyme or reason to the way the office is setting up these meetings,” she said. She learned that Know Your IX had been disinvited just a few days ago, not via Jackson’s office, but via other sexual assault awareness organizations. When asked why Know Your IX might have been disinvited, she pointed to a critical Washington Post op-ed written by Dana Bolger and Brodsky, who are both former co-directors of Know Your IX. “Our best hunch is that the department saw that piece, that op-ed, and decided that they didn’t want a voice like ours in the room,” she said. Instead, Know Your IX will appear in a “Survivor Speak-Out” outside of the meeting, where survivors will read statements in a space open to the public.
The meeting is the latest in a series of actions and statements from the Department of Education that suggest DeVos and her colleagues are loosening Title IX enforcement. In her confirmation hearing, when asked by Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey if she could “commit” to uphold a 2011 Title IX federal guidance passed down to colleges by the Obama Administration, DeVos said, “It would be premature for me to do that today.” Called the Dear Colleague Letter, the 18-page guideline extended protections to survivors by demanding that colleges and universities investigate to campus sexual assault claims in a timely manner and assess claims based on a “preponderance of the evidence” as opposed to the higher standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” used in criminal court. The guidelines were based on estimates that, while rape is under-reported, about one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted on college campuses and survivors are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression, and attempt suicide.
DeVos also appointed Jackson as the new acting head of the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the office in charge of ensuring institutions are in compliance with anti-discrimination regulations like Title IX. Jackson, who is perhaps best known for traveling with Bill Clinton’s accusers during the 2016 election, smeared the more than a dozen women who launched allegations of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump. Of the women, she reportedly wrote on Facebook, “evidence is piling up that shows these recent accusers against Trump are, frankly, fake victims. Falsely painting yourself as a victim is not only horribly unfair to the person wrongly accused; it’s also an insult to real abuse victims.” Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women in a recording leaked from a 2004 Access Hollywood tape during the campaign trail, which he later dismissed as “locker room talk.” Jackson, who is white, also once claimed racial discrimination in college and has praised an economist who called the Civil Rights Act “monstrous.”
Already, Jackson has asked the civil rights investigators to focus on individual complaints over patterns of systemic discrimination, and in February, the department withdrew protections for transgender students. During a recent meeting at the National Association of College and University Attorneys, Jackson assured university administrators that the OCR would loosen Obama-era enforcement of Title IX. “OCR has fallen into a pattern and practice of overreaching, of setting out to punish and embarrass institutions rather than appreciate their good faith and genuine desire to correct legitimate civil rights problems,” she said, specifically criticizing the OCR’s published tally of colleges with open civil rights violation claim a “list of shame” that needlessly punishes colleges and overreaches the government’s function. And in an interview with the New York Times about this week’s meetings, she went perhaps the furthest she has yet:
Investigative processes have not been “fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,” Ms. Jackson argued, and students have been branded rapists “when the facts just don’t back that up.” In most investigations, she said, there’s “not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.”
“Rather, 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,’” Ms. Jackson said.
In April—which is also sexual assault awareness month—DeVos met with Georgia state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, who last year sued the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights over the 2011 guideline, calling it “unconstitutional” because it violated “an accused student’s fundamental rights to due process.” Ehrhart has also claimed that the current guidelines allow students to “withdraw consent weeks or months” after a sexual encounter and has sought to protect the “hundreds” of men he says are wrongfully accused of sexual assault with House Bill 51, which would effectively override the Title IX protections and limit an institution’s ability to investigate and punish a student accused of sexual misconduct until a criminal investigation is completed. (DeVos did meet with Michigan first lady Sue Snyder about combating campus sexual assault, but the details of those meetings have not been revealed).
“It was not always sunshine and rainbows working alongside the Obama administration, but we always felt that ultimately their commitment was to civil rights and that is not certainly true right now,” said Brodsky. Of her experience so far with the Trump administration, she says, “doesn’t feel like a thoughtful, thorough, and balanced process, but more like a dog and pony show.”
Frustrated by the DOE’s lack of transparency, the National Women’s Law Center announed last month that it is suing the DOE over “records related to the Department of Education’s enforcement of the federal law Title IX.” NWLC president Fatima Goss told the New York Times that she is “worried that the department will turn into apologists for the sort of violence that happens on campus.” Brodsky’s fear is that DeVos will “basically let schools off the hook.”
“What I’ll say though is that Title IX is a law,” Brodsky continued. “Betsy DeVos can decide whether and how she will get to enforce Title IX, but she doesn’t get to change the law itself.”