Student survivors need support, not the court


Out of the 1 in 5 women who experience some form of sexual assault during college, only 10 percent report the incident. Yet Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may soon discourage survivors even further from engaging in the reporting process.

On July 13, DeVos made it clear to survivors that she would give men’s rights activists a national platform to share their denial of rape culture when she met with National Coalition for Men Carolinas, an organization known for shaming survivors who come forward.

DeVos met with multiple complainants and respondents that day to begin her work to undermine the Obama administration’s improvements to Title IX, a federal law regarding sex discrimination at universities and colleges.

In 2011, the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights released a Dear Colleague Letter that would drastically improve Title IX processes for student survivors. The letter stated that sexual assault caused a hostile work environment for students. Therefore, accusations of assault could be investigated by the university, separately from the courts, and sanctions could be issued by the university based on the evidence found.

As a result, universities began to sanction students found responsible while protecting the privacy of the survivor. Now, if a student is sexually assaulted by a peer and does not wish to engage in an off-campus criminal justice system, they may still ask a university to investigate and sanction the perpetrator.

This was a life-changing letter for student survivors. Engaging with an assaulter in the court system is terrifying, but so is running into them in the halls before you have your next biology class. This trapped state of a student survivor often causes depression, fear, and may ultimately lead to dropping out.

Now that universities are encouraged to investigate, these institutions have a responsibility to protect the survivor by suspending or expelling the accused, or by moving the accused to a different dorm building and into different classes. It’s a radical idea: there are now ways to protect a survivor without making them engage in a court system that often mistreats or fails them.

DeVos, however, is looking to get rid of this process. With her comments on the infallibility of due process, it is clear she believes the justice system is the only entity that can properly sanction a student assaulter.

Make no mistake. The Obama-era improvements to Title IX are not perfect, but what DeVos is suggesting is a dangerous step in the wrong direction. Without a safe and confidential reporting process in our universities and colleges, survivors will go back into hiding.

The Department of Education is taking public comments regarding its current regulations (including Title IX law) until August 21. It is crucial that we ask DeVos and the Department of Education to strengthen the Dear Colleague Letter of 2011, instead of tearing it down.

Read more about the dangers of undermining the 2011 letter from the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence here.