On Wednesday, the U.S. Education Department confirmed that the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, would appear at George Mason University on Thursday to make a "major policy address on Title IX enforcement." That announcement, previously reported by BuzzFeed News, heightened advocates’ fears that Ms. DeVos was poised to roll back the department’s efforts on mitigating campus sexual assault, a hallmark of the Obama years.
BuzzFeed had also reported that the department’s top civil-rights official, Candice Jackson, intended to revisit the department’s 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter — a directive that laid out exactly what the government expected colleges to do to protect students from sexual violence — through a process called notice and comment.
Advocates have viewed the issuance of that letter, which used the gender-equity law known as Title IX as a legal basis, as a momentous step in acknowledging the risk of sexual assault faced by college students. In the years that followed, the department’s Office for Civil Rights launched hundreds of investigations into campuses’ handling of sexual assault. Meanwhile, colleges rushed to adopt policies prescribed by the Obama administration, and hired Title IX coordinators to oversee their efforts.
Advocates have pushed Ms. DeVos to commit to leaving the guidance in place. But in a January confirmation hearing, Ms. DeVos said it would be "premature" to promise that the letter would not be rescinded. She has since stressed that rules governing colleges’ treatment of sexual violence be fair to accused students, and has met with groups who advocate for those students, along with Title IX advocates.
During a news conference that followed a "listening session" on Title IX in July, Ms. DeVos told reporters that "it’s clear" that the stories of the accused are not being told. "A system without due-process protections," she said, serves no one.
Critics’ fears were heightened with the appointment of Ms. Jackson, who was quoted in The New York Times as appearing to play down the severity of campus-rape allegations, saying that "90 percent of them fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’" She later apologized.
What Would Change?
Following news of the George Mason event, Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s education committee, urged Ms. DeVos in a news release "not to undermine campus sexual violence survivors." She listed six things Ms. DeVos could do to protect victims of assault. Among them: Announce that Obama-era guidance will be kept in place, and remove Ms. Jackson from her post.
"With an Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights who blamed sexual assaults on alcohol and regret and a President with his own concerning history on the issue, it’s clear Secretary DeVos could use some suggestions on how to combat the epidemic of campus sexual violence," Ms. Murray said.
Brett A. Sokolow, president of the NCHERM Group, which advises colleges on managing risk, said it’s possible that the department would fully rescind the 2011 guidance as well as a companion document released in 2014 on Title IX and sexual assault. But the department could swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction: pushing colleges to focus on due process in sex-assault investigations, which could open the department up to the same criticism over overregulation that they’ve harped on regarding the Obama administration.
Still, there may be little Ms. DeVos can do to unwind campuses’ focus on sexual assault. Many colleges are unlikely to abandon the infrastructure they have built since 2011, and are bound by federal and state laws apart from the "Dear Colleague" letter.
Alyssa Peterson, a policy coordinator at Know Your IX, a sexual-assault survivor advocacy organization, said that offers her little comfort. The announcement from Ms. DeVos, she said, comes during the "red zone" — the period at the beginning of the academic year when students are most vulnerable to sexual assault.
"It’s very disturbing to think that people’s lives could be upended at a time when they’re most vulnerable on campus."