At a Wednesday town hall in Tipton, Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill turned the meeting into a platform to stand up for women’s rights. McCaskill took questions on everything from abortion to health care, but seemed especially passionate about the issue of Title IX, a federal law that requires schools and other institutions receiving funding from the federal government to ensure the equal rights of people of all genders.
Title IX is most famous for being used to fight campus sexual assault and domestic violence. The law was heavily enforced under the Obama administration, under which new guidelines were imposed to give survivors more rights, resources, and better reporting options. One in four women will experience sexual assault on college campuses, and yet education secretary Betsy DeVos‘ silence and apathy, as well as new budget proposals by the Trump administration, show that this widespread issue which continues to bar countless young women from equal education, indicate how little the issue matters to them.
President Trump’s proposed budget mandates staffing cuts to the Office of Civil Rights, which handles Title IX investigations, and to McCaskill, this is unacceptable.
“Since they have sent signals that this is no longer a priority for them, one would assume this is where they would cut staff,” McCaskill said at the town hall.
On college campuses across the nation, understaffing in Title IX offices that handle sexual assault cases has resulted in substantial and illegal delays in investigating sexual assaults. Staffing cuts at the Office of Civil Rights, which already struggled to handle its thousands of cases in a timely matter, will have disastrous consequences — and of course, the burden of this will fall on the shoulders of college-age women across the country.
“We’ve really turned the corner on making the process more fair, more transparent and certainly more professional so I would hate to backslide,” she said. McCaskill was referring to Obama-era guidelines that lowered the standard of evidence for those reporting being sexually assaulted. The guidelines have been praised by survivor’s rights advocates, who note that it’s often impossible for survivors, who suffer from PTSD or fear retribution, shame, and blame, to come forward immediately and provide seamless evidence.
“Basically they are just sending a message that schools will not need to ever worry about the federal government looking over their shoulder on anything about Title IX,” McCaskill added. After all, with less staff, it will be virtually impossible for the Office of Civil Rights to regularly investigate and respond to allegations emerging from schools across the country. “That’s not the right message.”
“We know from all of the evidence that’s come out, that sexual assault on campuses has been a serious problem,” McCaskill continued. “That’s what we’re worried about so that’s why we’re trying to pin them down. Why exactly are you doing this and what exactly are you going to stop doing in terms of investigating schools who have not taken their Title IX investigations seriously?”
“Now’s not a time to look the other way and say never mind on campus sexual assault,” she concluded. “Let’s continue to make the reforms that are in progress because it’ll be fair for everyone; both for the person who’s been assaulted and for the person who’s been accused.”
The issue of campus sexual assault has taken center stage in the state of Missouri, when University of Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Courey took her own life after accusing a football player of raping her. Campus sexual assault — and lack of consequences for it — have resulted in survivors dropping out of school and grappling with mental health struggles. With the Trump administration taking a step back on the issue, the responsibility falls on senators like McCaskill to continue the fight for survivors’ rights.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.