Forum

Betsy DeVos proposes significant changes to Title IX

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While many officials in the Trump administration are mired in controversies or legal battles, there are few as publicly disliked as the sitting U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. She has been credited with such infamously bad ideas as proposing to cut federal funding for the Special Olympics and, acting at the behest of the Trump administration, suggesting potential cuts to after school programs, literacy education, and community schools, which would reverse hard-won progress and improvements.

Now, DeVos is coming under fire for her approach to an issue of utmost importance and sensitivity: campus sexual assault. DeVos’s highly controversial plan to overhaul Title IX regulations, which has already gained over 105,000 public comments, not only makes it more difficult to hold schools liable in incidences of sexual assault, but bolsters the rights of the accused, such as allowing the legal representative of the accused to cross-examine the victim in school disciplinary hearings.

Victims’ rights advocates and Democrats alike have lambasted the proposed changes, claiming that it would be a regression from the equity that previous policies have been working towards for decades, making it easier for accusers to shirk responsibility for their actions, and further perpetuating the stigma surrounding the reporting of sexual violence. As if the current norm of silence is not bad enough.

DeVos has justified her proposed regulations by claiming that no student should have their education derailed, even the accused, and that there should be a greater sense of balance between the parties in a process that deals with such serious offenses. Superficially, her intentions are somewhat understandable; the current system for handling sexual assault on campuses does tend to lean in favor of the victim, and it is true that false accusations do occur. That being said, false reports are rare and at most only a fraction of the total number of reports—falling somewhere between two and ten percent. While favoritism rather than dispassionate analysis is wrong in cases of sexual assault, it should be kept in mind that the system often sides with the victim because it takes incredible courage and resolve to come forward and file a report in the first place.

DeVos’s policies, considered in a vacuum, are the wrong approach towards fixing the problem of sexual assault. While it may seem as an attempt to balance the system, the regulations will only worsen the problem; empowering the accused, when there are already so many systemic obstacles for victims of sexual assault to get justice, would only dilute the heinousness of such offenses and sends the dangerous message that coming forward and testifying is not worth it.

From a big-picture perspective, however, DeVos’s proposal is slightly justified. It is undeniable that false reports are a problem on campus, and they must be resolved because even a few bad cases can, as we see in people’s misguided views, lead to the inflation of the problem of false accusations. There must be greater discrimination between those who abuse the system for their own personal gain and those who have a genuine case so that resources are properly devoted.

But this raises the question: how do we stop false accusations and maintain the integrity of the system without upsetting the balance between the accuser and the accused?

One important step is the normalization of reporting cases of sexual assault. Victims on their own, following the trauma of sexual assault, often do not come forward because our society is one that implicitly promotes silence, a norm that extends onto our campuses and institutions of higher education. Rather than providing a quick fix for the issue at a surface level, efforts should be channeled towards resolving the root of the issue by creating initiatives that further encourage victims to come forward, which will lead to investigations and due diligence. Once school-lead investigations into reported cases of sexual assault become a common occurrence rather than the occasional exercise, the system itself will naturally strengthen with use, becoming more adept at delivering the justice that victims deserve without giving the impression of depriving the accused of their rights.

Only when this is accomplished should we consider empowering the accused in the way that DeVos proposes, but not before. To do so would be taking a major step back and further entrenching damaging social norms. Hopefully, the public outcry over this proposal will ultimately prevent such changes from coming to pass, helping us continue to move forward towards greater equity and accountability.