Betsy DeVos and Title IX - by Greer Clem
I have been ruminating on DeVos's recent speech for several days, wanting to write somethingbut apprehensive to plunge into such a complex and delicate subject. Then I realized: that's the whole problem. We can't not talk about something just because it is complex or uncomfortable or might make others angry. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and the more we share the more we can learn and take preventive action. So today I wanted to talk about DeVos's recent speech and the implications it has for TItle IX on campuses across our nation.
DeVos delivered a speech at George Mason University on September 7. She began by saying that TItle IX was landmark legislation and that she felt it was her responsibility to, "continue to enforce it and vigorously address all instances where people fall short." To her credit, DeVos said all the things one should say when discussing sexual assault: that one rape is too many, that every person deserves to feel safe on their campus, and that we must have open and honest discussions about sexual assault. She then transitioned and said, "There is no way to avoid the devastating reality of campus sexual misconduct: lives have been lost. Lives of victims. And lives of the accused." This is where DeVos began to discuss how the current system is failing all parties involved, both victims and the accused - purportedly, she is mostly here referring to those wrongfully accused, as she highlights her argument with stories of mothers fearing their sons would take their own lives after being wrongfully accused of sexual assault and seeing no way out. She peppers the rest of her speech with similar examples of wrongful accusations and how those involved were victims of the current system, cushioning such citations with other stories of proven rape where the victim of the actual assault was left unprotected. It is a winding and weaving way to introduce her point: Title IX is too broad and encourages schools to punish before investigating.
Now, I don't want to dismiss her argument, because it bears discussing that proving rape cases is incredibly difficult and involves much of what people call "he said she said." Rape can be extremely challenging to prove. Often times, one can only prove that an act of sex occurred, not necessarily that it was not consensual. This is all in the context of sex itself, a highly sensitive and personal topic and one that schools for years tried to distance themselves from. However, it's worth noting that DeVos makes no mention that sex education and consent-based education should be more widespread among universities, which is one of the most obvious ways to combat on-campus assault.
The stories that DeVos tells of young men being barred from their institutions because of baseless accusations should be discussed. A case should always be made clear to the accused; that fact is undeniable. Our justice system rests on the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," though we've seen how this perception is often ignored. DeVos said, "Through intimidation and coercion, the failed system has clearly pushed schools to overreach. With the heavy hand of Washington tipping the balance of her scale, the sad reality is that Lady Justice is not blind on campuses today....Every survivor of sexual misconduct must be taken seriously. Every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined." These statements are incongruous. Every survivor of sexual assault and every student accused of assault must indeed be taken seriously, but failure to do so is not based on the overreaching, politically-based influence of institutions themselves. If anything, the system is failing because it still tries to keep these issues in the dark. She is correct that many students are afraid to report assault to their institutions, is correct that they fear a mishandling of their case, but she is wrong to argue that this is because institutions are too overreaching, that they will try to do too much. An argument based on such logic is one that will only move us backwards.
The system needs work, that is uncontested, but if we are to base our actions on the assumption that institutions' behavior is overreaching, then our responsive actions will be misguided. Also, it is absolutely crucial to note that victims almost never lie about rape. The FBI reports that only 2% of rape reports are given falsely. If we need to restructure how we combat sexual assault and rape, clearly focusing on wrongful accusations is not the pressing issue. Instead, we need to focus on creating more safe spaces for survivors to speak out. DeVos's statement did not necessarily go against this way of thinking, it merely stressed ineffective action when it comes to institutions. DeVos recommended a “Regional Center” model; and it is being explored by a number of states today. The model sets up a voluntary, opt-in Center where professionally-trained experts handle Title IX investigations and adjudications." Trained experts and specialized departments that are properly prepared to deal with sexual assault would no doubt improve the current system. I would challenge DeVos on this point, however, by saying that these actions would require further state funding for public schools, which members of her party would undoubtedly not support. It could also result in tuition hikes at private institutions, something that is already an issue that needs addressing. I don't bring these points up to dismiss DeVos's suggestion, merely to point out that it's one thing to stand in front of a crowd and say we need to fix the system and another thing to outline how we do so.
There have been many responses to DeVos's speech from both parties, but I won't delve into that here. Instead, I would encourage everyone to read her speech and to approach it from your own unique perspective. Listen to her suggestions and see if her arguments validate them. Most of all, keep the conversation alive. The most important point that DeVos neglects to make is that we have to make conversations more accessible. She argues that institutions should not hold all the responsibility for prosecuting cases of assault, but they do indeed have an obligation when it comes to education. Every campus should provide safe and open places for discussion about consent and sexual safety. If nothing else, I hope this piece will provoke some conversation and reflection. While I don't agree with the direction DeVos took her comments, I think it was important that they were stated and I am grateful that they prompted some reflection for myself. Lastly I want to say to any survivor of sexual assault that I am with you. We cannot rest until there is a system in place that not only prevents assault but protects all victims and advocates for justice.