Opinion

Renée Graham

Betsy DeVos goes backward on sexual assault

Meghan Downey, 22, a recent graduate from the College of William & Mary, reacts outside an auditorium after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke about proposed changes to Title IX, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. "It's pretty expected based on this administration," says Downey, "they don't condemn violence they perpetuate it." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
Meghan Downey, 22, reacted to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s proposed changes to Title IX policy Thursday at George Mason University’s campus in Arlington, Va.

A police officer once said to me, after watching a woman endure a savage cross-examination during a rape trial I was covering, that the second worst day in a sexual assault survivor’s life is the day her personal history and habits are put on trial by a defense attorney.

Another could well be the day Betsy DeVos became education secretary.

Claiming that the Obama administration “weaponized” the Office of Civil Rights to “work against school and against students,” DeVos will roll back current Obama-era federal guidelines designed to protect victims of campus sexual assault.

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While offering no specifics about what will replace what she called “a failed system,” she said her department would “seek public feedback and combine institutional knowledge, professional expertise, and the experiences of students” to achieve a “workable, effective, and fair system.” It’s worth noting that DeVos mentioned the rights of the accused as often as she mentioned sexual assault survivors.

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This is exactly what survivors, their advocates, and supporters of women’s rights have feared since Inauguration Day. After all, DeVos’s boss was once captured on tape discussing his nonconsensual grabbing of women’s private parts. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Donald Trump said in 2005 on a hot microphone. “You can do anything.” It’s hardly surprising that as president Trump chose for education secretary a woman with her own alarming views about sexual assault on college campuses.

Specifically, DeVos is rolling back a 2011 directive, known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, that charged colleges and universities with taking “immediate and effective steps to end sexual harassment and sexual violence.” Those that failed to do so risked losing federal funding. Covering standards of evidence and length of investigations, the 19-page letter also said criminal investigations into allegations of sexual violence “did not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX” — the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education — “to resolve complaints promptly and equitably.”

Apparently, the school investigations weren’t equitable enough for DeVos — with the accused, she suggested, suffering as often as the victims. “No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel that the scales are tipped against him or her,” DeVos said in July after meeting with sexual assault survivors, college officials, and students who said they were falsely accused or unfairly disciplined.

DeVos, who also met with so-called “men’s rights” groups, said of the accused, “their stories are not often shared.” Or, translated into Trumpian terms, DeVos believes there are “many sides” to sexual assault allegations.

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In July, Candace Jackson, who heads the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, told the New York Times that “90 percent” of such sexual assault accusations “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.’” After a backlash, Jackson, whose job it is to enforce campus sexual assault laws, apologized.

While false rape accusations stories, like the now-discredited 2014 Rolling Stone story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house, garner massive attention, only two to 10 percent of rape allegations are false, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Women are victims of rape far more than men are victims of false accusations.

That same report concluded that 63 percent of sexual assaults are never even reported to police. And as any sexual assault survivor — whether it’s an altar boy, sports prodigy, or college freshman — knows, there is shame, embarrassment, and the crushing fear of not being believed. A crime deepens into torturous secret.

We’re at the start of another academic year, yet this will remain the same: 20 percent of young women will become the victim of a “completed or attempted sexual assault” while in college. That’s also the case for more than 6 percent of men, according to a National Institute of Justice report.

Despite DeVos’s claims, the Obama guidelines weren’t intended to undermine due process. What they did was give sexual assault victims a small sense of security that their voices would be heard and their assailants held accountable. Yet apparently even that is too much to ask of an administration so hostile toward women, it’s willing to downplay a documented epidemic of campus sexual violence.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham