BY LILY REAVIS ’21
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that her department is formally rescinding Obama-era guidance on how college campuses should handle sexual assaults under the Title IX law on Sept. 22. This decision effectively silences sexual assault victims, protects perpetrators and creates a community of silence on college campuses.
The rescindment followed an announcement by DeVos earlier this month that outlined her concerns with the previous guidance, specifically with due process being denied to the accused. In the past six months, DeVos has also revoked protection for transgender students and made the investigation process for college sexual assault more complicated.
The new ability of universities to modify the standard of evidence in campus sexual assault cases will discourage students from reporting assaults and cause confusion on campuses about how to handle cases of misconduct.
The United States Education Department released a document that outlines recommendations on how schools should respond to sexual assault cases when they announced the rescindment. The document itself is long-winded and mentions many changes that are easy to skim over.
One of the biggest changes mentioned appears only in a footnote that reads, “The standard of evidence for evaluating a claim of sexual misconduct should be consistent with the standard the school applies in other student misconduct cases.” Under the new guidelines for dealing with sexual misconduct cases, DeVos would like to treat accused students the same as students accused of petty theft or cheating.
Another drastic change is the newly-installed interim guidance that sets “no fixed time rate” for colleges and universities to complete an investigation. The evidence standard is left to the school, which will result in confusion between campuses. Students will have different rights on different campuses, and sexual assault cases will be treated with contrasting levels of importance depending on the location where the assaults took place.
For example, a Mount Holyoke student might have different rights when reporting a sexual assault, depending on if it took place at Mount Holyoke or another Five College campus. While I have only been on campus for a month, I’ve already heard multiple stories about Mount Holyoke students experiencing sexual misconduct on another campus. These students will not be protected by Mount Holyoke’s sexual assault policy, but rather by the policy of the other school. This is not only incredibly complicated, but also unfair for the student. The ambiguity created by this new mandate will cause prolonged investigations and increased feelings of guilt experienced by the victim.
Several of the changes do not offer enough explanation as to how they should be carried out. This will lead to confusion on college campuses, and may eventually lead to victim-blaming and dismissal of the seriousness of claims.
Ultimately, the rescindment sends a message to sexual assault victims that their education is less important than their perpetrator’s. The changes made were sudden and poorly-explained, and are already affecting student victims. The government needs to work to increase advocacy for survivors of sexual misconduct. This rescindment goes directly against that, and instead promotes a culture of silence and victim-blaming. DeVos should recognize her responsibility to the well-being of American students and reverse the decision immediately.