Photograph by Alice Fall
How Betsy DeVos is Using the Department of Education to Silence Victims of Sexual Assault
Written by By Sarah Ondak
I sit at a long cafeteria table, surrounded by fellow freshmen here at Stanford. It’s brunch time on a Saturday morning, and the conversation mainly revolves around the terrible six page essays that are due on Monday, or how our football team is about to crush the Oregon Ducks later tonight. Then, it takes a turn. Someone brings up a frat party they are going to, and then someone asks where it is. “I think it might be by Kappa Alpha,” comes the response. We’re quiet just for a moment. Those words have an indescribable weight to them: Kappa Alpha was the frat house where two students came upon Brock Turner raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster.
“They’re building a park there, where the girl was raped,” one student remarks. It’s meant to diffuse the tension, but we’re all still quiet. The park is just one way Stanford has been trying to move on from the incident. The school initially established a controversial ban on spirits at school parties. Now, in place of the dumpsters where Turner ruined a young girl’s life, there’s a peaceful sitting area with stone benches and a fountain. The memorial won’t fix what happened, but it’s a step in the right direction. Stanford has also incorporated sexual education into its New Student Orientation. Over the summer I spent hours reading statistics and solving puzzles with the premise “If Jenny appears too drunk but Craig is trying to take her to his dorm, what can you do?.” The answer was always “B) Ask Jenny if she wants to get food so you can both ditch Craig.” The course is meant to be fun and interactive: in one segment you click a graphic beer keg to try and pour one exact serving to keep students from getting drunk. But, there is one statistic in particular from the sex-ed program that I can’t seem to stop from ringing in my ears: “1 in 4 female students has been a victim of sexual assault.”
To even conceive that one in every four women that I know has been sexually assaulted or raped is almost impossible. I’m a member of the Stanford Women’s Rowing Team. There are around forty of us and according to this statistic, that means at least ten have been assaulted. This thought enters my mind almost daily. There are twelve freshman including myself on the team this year. That means at least three of us are going to be sexually assaulted if we haven’t been already. The facts of campus rape culture are terrifying…but they’re not enough to keep me in my dorm on a Friday night. I go out. I’ve been to a frat house, I’ve been out alone after dark, I put myself in danger for the thrills of a college social life. Is it worth it? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that, now, if I am raped and I go to the school for help, I will not be protected.
In September, Tess Owen reported for Vice News, “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos scrapped Obama-era guidelines on campus sexual assault […] after concluding they were unfair to students accused of rape.” When I read those words, outrage filled my body. I could barely comprehend the idea of something being “unfair to students accused of rape.” What’s unfair is that Brock Turner was charged with only six months in county jail and three years of probation because a harsher sentence would, in the words of the judge, have a “severe impact” on him, as if Turner hadn’t traumatized another human being.
According to statistics from a 2016 Teen Vogue article, 50% of victims don’t report sexual assault because they either don’t think it is serious enough, or they don’t want to relive some of the worst moments of their lives. As limited our dialogue is about sexual assault, Betsy DeVos seems devoted to silencing victims even more. After meeting with men’s rights groups, sexual assault survivors, and school administrators in July, DeVos is reversing the 2011 Obama directive that addressed how schools across America handled sexual assault. It was meant to fix “sluggish investigations, underreported statistics, and poor treatment of assault survivors,” Owens reported. It directed school officials to combat sexual misconduct under Title IX, or face potential loss of federal funding if they failed to do so. The previous rules also required schools to approach allegations of sexual assault as if the accuser was telling the truth, and the defendant would have to prove their innocence. Now the opposite is true. DeVos has put the survivors in the position of proving they were assaulted.
Reading about this shocking change, I was horrified. For a woman to be brave enough to come forward and proclaim that they have been assaulted is a monumental task. In this day and age, any woman who has been a victim of sexual violence faces constant judgement and stigma from peers and administrators who don’t want their school to look bad. They run the risk of being defined for their whole lives by a moment that could have lasted only a few torturous minutes. I think back to high school where I heard stories about girls who had been groped against their will by a star football player, girls who would never tell their stories due to fear of the backlash. Now think about Brock Turner. He was a swimmer for a Division I university who could have made it to the Olympics. If other students hadn’t found him by that dumpster, would his victim have told her story? Without the protections the Department of Education was enforcing, it seems unlikely.
Owens’ VICE piece noted that “Advocates say […] DeVos’ actions will have a chilling effect on whether students who have been sexually assaulted come forward.” To counter criticism, Betsy DeVos explained in a statement, “Schools must continue to confront these horrific crimes and behaviors head-on. There will be no more sweeping them under the rug. But the process also must be fair and impartial, giving everyone more confidence in its outcomes.” She is attempting to prevent the Department of Education from overstepping its authority far-reaching and regulatory policies, but in doing so is effectively telling victims “You won’t get help from here.”
Edwin Rios reported for Mother Jones that Devos stated, “No student should be the victim of sexual assault. No student should feel unsafe. No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel the scales are tipped against him or her. We need to get this right, we need to protect all students and we need to do it quickly. It’s obvious the toll this places on everyone involved.” Betsy DeVos’ action however is only increasing that toll. Obama’s 2011 guidelines effectively helped to combat victim mistreatment, and their undoing adds to the anti-female tone set by the present administration. National survivor and youth led campaign Know Your IX wrote, “Before the Department of Education began taking sexual assault seriously, schools routinely violated survivor’s’ rights and pushed them out of school[…] survivors stayed silent for fear that the act of reporting to our school would be more traumatic than the assault itself.”
Rios reported in a speech to law students at George Mason University in Virginia that, “DeVos further condemned the rules set in the 2011 guidance, calling the current system in place at college campuses ‘shameful’ and ‘wholly un-American.’” Her statements are confusing because the guidelines encouraged reporting of assaults, set specific steps for schools on how to follow the law, and made campuses safer. So when DeVos says those rules were “un-American,” it appears the America she is referencing is a society from decades past. With the destruction of the 2011 effort to stop campus rape, DeVos is taking us back in time to a country where, as Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center observed, “sexual assault was a secret that was swept under the rug”.
Owen, Tess. “Betsy DeVos Acted on Her Promise to Help Students Accused of Rape.” VICE News, VICE News.com , 22 Sept. 2017, news.vice.com/story/devos-campus-rape.
Broytman, Ilana. “These Stats Prove Sexual Assault on Campus Affects Everyone.” Teen Vogue, TeenVogue.com, 25 May 2017, www.teenvogue.com/story/campus-sexual-assault-statistics.
Rios, Edwin. “Betsy DeVos Just Undid One of Obama’s Most Significant Efforts to Stop Campus Rape.” Mother Jones, Mother Jones.com , 22 Sept. 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/09/betsy-devos-just-undid-one-of-obamas-most-significant-efforts-to-stop-campus-rape/.