Advocates for campus sexual-assault victims have been concerned about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her approach to enforcing Title IX, the gender-equity law, since the moment her nomination was announced last November.
They’ve wondered what might become of their six-year campaign to pressure the federal government to hold colleges accountable for preventing sexual violence. They've fretted that Ms. DeVos won’t preserve the Obama administration’s "Dear Colleague" letter, a 2011 document that spelled out for colleges their obligation to respond promptly and equitably to reports of rape.
They hoped to get answers to some of those questions on Thursday, when they sat down with Ms. DeVos for the first time.
But right off the bat, activists were skeptical about how the meetings were going to go. While sexual-assault victims would have 90 minutes to share their stories and concerns with Ms. DeVos, students who say they were falsely accused of rape would have an equal amount of time with the secretary. A third meeting would feature college lawyers, many of whom have criticized how onerous recent federal Title IX enforcement has been.
Then, on the eve of the meetings, Candice E. Jackson, Ms. DeVos’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights, suggested in an interview with The New York Times that "90 percent" of campus rape cases involved alcohol and regretful female students.
Ms. Jackson’s remarks outraged victim advocates who were already worried about the rhetoric they were hearing from the Trump administration. The comments put Ms. DeVos in an uncomfortable position: She was forced to respond to them while trying to emphasize that she and her staff were taking campus sexual assault seriously and were eager to listen to all sides of the issue.
Also, leaders of one prominent advocacy group, Know Your IX, said they were abruptly excluded from the meeting with Ms. DeVos. Sejal Singh, a policy and advocacy coordinator with the group, said they had been "assured" they would be invited. But after Know Your IX’s founders wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that criticized Ms. Jackson for suggesting that the civil-rights office would no longer publish a list of colleges under Title IX investigation, the group never heard back from the department, Ms. Singh said.
Know Your IX and a handful of other organizations held a rally on Thursday outside the Education Department that drew about 50 attendees.
Ms. DeVos held a rare news conference on Thursday after the three sessions. She repeatedly stressed that "we need to get this right" but offered no specifics on her plans for the "Dear Colleague" letter or other possible policy changes related to campus sexual assault.
Students who say they were falsely accused describe their meeting with Ms. DeVos as a breath of fresh air; they say they feel like their concerns are being listened to by a key decision maker for the first time. Meanwhile, victim advocates are continuing to wonder what the secretary will do and whether she’s as committed to their cause as she says she is.
Breaking the Silence
For the first five months of her tenure, Ms. DeVos made virtually no public comments on Title IX and sexual assault. During her January confirmation hearing, she said it would be "premature" for her to commit to preserving the "Dear Colleague" letter.
The most significant hint of the Education Department’s thinking on the issue came from a memo penned by Ms. Jackson, first published by ProPublica. Under the Obama administration, Title IX complaints often triggered a broader review of a college’s handling of sexual-assault reports; the memo directed the OCR staff to cut back on that approach. Officials said the goal was to reduce the backlog of investigations, but some expressed concern that the memo suggested a scaling-back of civil-rights enforcement.
On Thursday, Ms. DeVos broke her silence. "We can’t go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug," she told reporters.
At the start of the victim advocates’ meeting, Ms. Jackson, who had issued a statement on Wednesday apologizing for her "90 percent" comment, again said she was sorry. But Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, told Politico the apology fell somewhat flat.
"There’s no way to take it back, unfortunately. It’s been put out there," she said. "The only thing they can do now is exercise the leadership and spending a lot of time rejecting the rape myths they propagated this week."
Ms. DeVos said the meetings reinforced her belief that, while some things about colleges’ current approach to adjudicating sexual-assault cases are working, others are not. She didn’t elaborate on what aspects of the campus process she might like to change, saying only that "this issue is hurting too many students."
A priority for victim advocates is keeping the standard of evidence that the "Dear Colleague" letter told colleges to use when determining responsibility in sexual-assault cases: a "preponderance of evidence," or more likely than not.
Asked whether her opinion on the Title IX guidance and the "preponderance" standard had changed as a result of the meetings, Ms. DeVos said that "today was a time to listen" and added that "this is not the beginning of those conversations, and it’s not the end of them."
Jessica Davidson, managing director of the nonprofit End Rape on Campus, was in the victim advocates’ meeting. She described it as "a very important start for what needs to be many more conversations between DeVos and survivors."
"She needs to give a leadership signal that this is a priority for her and the administration," Ms. Davidson continued.
She hopes that the secretary won’t rush to make any policy decisions without talking to more sexual-assault victims. "There are so many survivor experiences that weren’t represented in that room," she said, adding that she left a binder of students’ sexual-assault stories with Ms. DeVos.
Ms. DeVos was asked why she chose to spend just as much time speaking with students accused of sexual assault as with victims. She stressed that "it’s important for us to hear from all parties on this issue" and said her meeting with the accused students was powerful.
"If you had been in that session, I think you would have heard firsthand the pain of some of the individuals, a couple of whom actually told their story for the first time," she said.
Joseph C. Roberts, a former Savannah State University student who says he was the subject of false rape accusations, said Thursday's meeting marked the first time someone within the Education Department had cared about his perspective. "For two and a half years I've pretty much just been knocking on doors and getting ignored," he said.
The meeting included about a dozen students who shared their experiences with the campus disciplinary process, said Jonathon P. Andrews, a former Hanover College student who says he was wrongly accused of sexual misconduct. The majority were not white, straight men, said Mr. Andrews, who is gay.
Michelle R. Johnston, president of the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College, attended the third meeting of the day, which included campus leaders and lawyers. Ms. DeVos spent most of the session listening, Ms. Johnston said, and didn’t offer any clues about which way she was leaning on the Title IX guidance.
Different Year, Same Message
In a rally outside the Education Department almost exactly four years ago, Title IX activists told stories about how their colleges had mishandled their sexual-assault cases: No one had informed them of their rights; administrators had discouraged them from reporting; perpetrators had never been disciplined and had remained on campus.
Dozens of students and allies delivered a petition with nearly 120,000 signatures that day demanding that the department hold colleges accountable for not doing enough to prevent campus sexual assault.
At Thursday’s rally, the central message was the same: Federal officials must strongly enforce Title IX. Some of the victims who spoke out, or read anonymous survivor accounts, said their colleges hadn’t helped them seek justice.
But others told stories of how institutions had responded promptly to sexual-assault reports and, in some cases, disciplined and expelled the perpetrators.
These colleges hadn’t done everything perfectly, activists said, but administrators had taken victims seriously. That’s largely thanks to the recent Title IX guidance and more-stringent federal enforcement of the law, they said.
Maybe many colleges will continue to do the right thing, regardless of what federal enforcement looks like, said Ms. Singh, of Know Your IX. But that doesn’t mean she and her peers are going to let the "Dear Colleague" letter go easily.
Ms. DeVos must understand "that the Department of Education’s enforcement is a necessary tool to make sure that the opportunity to learn is upheld," Ms. Singh said.
And if she doesn’t commit to preserving the guidance, Know Your IX will focus its efforts elsewhere. The group is starting to ramp up its advocacy on the state level and work for more policy change there.
"We are going to continue putting the pressure on the federal government to enforce survivors’ rights," Ms. Singh said, "but if they’re going to continue to signal that they’re going to give schools a free pass on sexual violence, states have a role to fill the gap."
Moving forward, said Mr. Roberts, the former Savannah State student, he hopes conversations about campus sexual assault will no longer be framed as a debate, with victims on one side and wrongly accused students on the other. "Let's not call them the other side — let's call them victims of sexual assault," he said. "They're suffering, they don't deserve this."
The same holds true for students who face false accusations, he said. From what he observed, Ms. DeVos seemed to understand that. "It's a new OCR," he said, referring to the civil-rights office. "It's a new Department of Education."
Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.