CAMBRIDGE — US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was met Wednesday evening by hundreds of protesters outside Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and more than two dozen students inside standing silently, fists raised, with signs criticizing her positions on campus sexual assault and school choice.
DeVos came to Harvard as part of a conference on school choice less than a year after Massachusetts voters roundly defeated a ballot measure to expand charter schools. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has also been among DeVos’s most vocal critics, challenging her on the Trump administration’s new rules for adjudicating campus sexual assault and accusing her of supporting for-profit colleges at the expense of student loan borrowers.
DeVos did not directly address the protesters inside room or the rowdy crowd outside in her remarks, but she did take questions and defended her position on multiple fronts. She said the federal education agency was committed to ensuring that students are safe and learning.
“We can be bold,” DeVos said. “We can be unafraid.”
She added that any student who is unsafe and discriminated against, “that’s the last thing we want.”
At Wednesday evening’s event, students held up sheets that read “Protect Survivors,” “Harvard legitimizes white supremacy” and “Resist.” Massachusetts teachers and politicians, in a rally along the sidewalk, attacked DeVos for her long-standing support of charter schools and voucher programs.
Boston City Councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson said Massachusetts didn’t need DeVos advising leaders on how to operate public schools, praising the state’s high student test scores.
“Betsy DeVos, you can go back to D.C.,” Jackson said. “Because these are our schools, our children, and our public schools work in the state of Massachusetts.”
DeVos said she wanted all parents, no matter their race or income level, to have options about where to send their children to school.
“There are too many kids who are trapped in a school that doesn’t meet their needs. There are too many parents who are denied the fundamental right to decide the best way to educate their child,” DeVos said. “I’ve been called the “school choice Secretary” by some. I think it’s meant as an insult, but I wear it as a badge of honor!”
Last November, 62 percent of Massachusetts voters rejected a ballot question that would have allowed up to 12 new charters a year statewide regardless of any caps.
Latoya Gayle, a mother of three from Boston, said she and her children have benefited from private and charter schools, but believes that the federal government still has a role to play in ensuring that all schools work, especially for minority students.
Gayle said she came to hear DeVos and deliver her message.
“I don’t think taking away all the rails is the way to go,” Gayle said.
Several of the audience members who had packed the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum were also eager to challenge DeVos on issues of school safety, sexual assault, and predatory for-profit schools
Earlier this month, Devos rescinded the Obama administration’s 2011 directive requiring colleges to aggressively investigate all sexual assault claims using a relatively low burden of proof.
The federal education agency is developing a replacement policy and has told schools to evaluate sexual misconduct claims using the same standards of evidence they rely on for any other student infractions.
Opponents argue that it could make it tougher to prove allegations of sexual assault at some universities.
DeVos on Wednesday credited the Obama administration for bringing the problem of campus sexual assault to the forefront, but she said the rules need to be fair to both the victim and the accused.
“It’s not an issue that we’re going to be sweeping under the rug and putting in the back room,” DeVos said. “We need ensure that policy and framework is fair to all students. All students.”Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.