Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has again stated that she wants to repeal what she called the “failed system” of Title IX, which was expanded by the Obama administration. "Any perceived offense can become a full-blown Title IX investigation, but if everything is harassment then nothing is," she said in a speech on Thursday, as she emphasized the plight of those who are falsely accused of sexual misconduct. She seemed less concerned about the survivors, and her statements were met with outrage from advocacy groups.
Title IX is a portion of the United States Educational Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. The 2011 Title IX Guidance, known as the “Dear Colleagues Letter," discussed the obligations schools have to address campus sexual violence. This letter is not law, but it outlines which standards the Department of Education will use to review how universities handle Title IX complaints. It was hailed by survivors and advocates as a step towards improving campus culture. This is the part DeVos is taking issue with, as it allows for a range of incidents to be considered sexual assault. "Schools have been compelled by Washington to enforce ambiguous and incredibly broad definitions of assault and harassment," she said.
During her speech at George Mason University in Virginia, DeVos spent time reinforcing her position that sexual assault is “reprehensible." However, she also frequently referenced the damage that has been done to those who have been falsely accused of sexual misconduct and cited anecdotes rather than any hard data, drawing an equivalence between the suffering of survivors and the suffering of the falsely accused. She asserted that sexual misconduct on campus is an issue that must be take into account “all perspectives… with and for all students."
DeVos emphasized the necessity of “due process," which she believes is lacking in the current system, building her argument on concerns raised at the time the “Dear Colleague Letter” was released. Opponents have objected to its call for institutions to use the “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof in such cases, instead of the higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence,” although this is standard procedure for a civil case rather than a criminal prosecution. DeVos took this one step further, arguing for a completely new way of dealing with Title IX enforcement.
She repeatedly criticized the current system for being too broad, bureaucratic and ineffective, but did not offer a replacement plan, pointing only to consultation and consideration of the position of survivors, the falsely accused, and administrators. While the current system is definitely in need of improvement, DeVos’ objective is clearly to dismantle it rather than build on any of its strengths. From a feminist perspective, it is difficult to see her ideological attack on Title IX as anything other than a thinly veiled attack on the legal rights of survivors. At the moment, the current Title IX system makes university campuses safer for survivors, just like the original legislation intended.
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Molly McLaughlin is a travel and culture writer currently based in Mexico City. Her work has appeared in publications including Lonely Planet, Refinery29 and Ms. Magazine. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @mollysgmcl.