Betsy DeVos’ Ambiguity Over Sexual Abuse School Guidance is Failing Women

DeVos has gone as far as conceding that, yes, sexual assault is bad. But her words mean next to nothing for women across the country, if she can't even tell them what she's willing to do to protect their rights without being sued first.

On Monday, the National Women’s Law Center filed a suit against the Education Department in an effort to force the release of information about federal enforcement of Title IX, a law that dictates how schools receiving federal funding must handle campus sexual harassment and assault. The Law Center’s complaint notes that under the Freedom of Information Act, this information should have been made public long ago.
According to the women’s advocacy group, it is seeking to understand the Trump administration’s approach to campus sexual assault — a difficult task given Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ ambiguity when asked whether she would uphold guidance to schools and colleges on sexual abuse, issued during Obama’s presidency.
The Education Department has previously responded to the organization’s request for documents and information back in January by stating that “due to the backlog of requests and the competing demands for the time of staff,” it would be unable to respond within 20 workdays. That was roughly five months ago.
President Donald Trump‘s record on sexual assault prior to taking office starkly contrasts President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden‘s legacy of passionate advocacy for survivors. Not only has Trump been accused of sexual abuse by a handful of women, and in his own words condoned “grab[bing]” women “by the p-ssy” with or without their consent, but Trump has also responded to allegations against him by launching sexist attacks on the characters of his accusers.
As one of the few female members of Trump’s predominantly white, male, and, of course, very wealthy, cabinet, DeVos was handed a rare opportunity to represent women and advocate for their rights in the new administration. For all her staggering economic privilege and donations of millions to the Republican party, as the decider of a number of policies regarding gender equality and sexual violence on college campuses, DeVos had a real opportunity to help women across the country.
But as the National Women’s Law Center’s recent complaint suggests, DeVos’ lack of transparency and refusal to offer straight answers to crucial questions about women’s rights mark a distinct failure for college-age women across the country.
Much is rightfully made of how DeVos’ preference for private schools and pro-religious freedom policies are hurting marginalized youths across the country. Her policies will essentially allow LGBTQ youths to be discriminated against, and may also contribute to denying poor students across the country equal opportunities in their educations. But it’s time to also consider how her policies will likely affect young women.
At DeVos’ January confirmation hearing, which preceded a vote that was so close Vice President Mike Pence had to come in as a tiebreaker, DeVos refused to state for the record whether she would uphold Obama-era federal guidelines on Title IX and sexual assault cases on campuses. “It would be premature for me to do that today,” she said, at the time.
These guidelines notably offered crucial rights to sexual assault survivors by 1) allowing them to choose whether or not their experiences were reported to law enforcement, and 2) lowering the standard of evidence for survivors.
While this lowered standard of evidence was, predictably enough, widely criticized by “men’s rights activists” who conveniently forget that men, too, are victims of sexual assault, it’s worth noting that many survivors often aren’t able to provide seamless evidence because of circumstances out of their power. Many are unable to come forward immediately as a result of trauma and fear of stigma and victim-blaming from law enforcement, and may not have preserved evidence.
Sexist stereotyping also plays an impactful role in the picking apart female victims’ narratives, resulting in women being dismissed as liars based on their sexual histories or relationships to their attackers. Experts and survivor’s rights advocates overwhelmingly condemn policies that require survivors to report their experiences to law enforcement, as these policies have been shown to dissuade survivors from reporting at all, and result in reporting rates being inaccurately skewed, as well as the spread of false information about sexual assault.
“Without the release of these documents, students, families, and advocates are kept in the dark about whether the department is enforcing legal protections for student survivors of sexual harassment and rape,” Fatima Goss Graves, the president-elect of the National Women’s Law Center, told the Washington Post. “Without their release, survivors won’t know if they can trust the government to intervene on their behalf.”
DeVos has gone as far as conceding that, yes, sexual assault is bad. But her words mean next to nothing for women across the country, if she can’t even tell them what she’s willing to do to protect their rights without being sued first.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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