Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will reportedly make a major announcement this Thursday regarding the department’s stance on Title IX.
According to BuzzFeed’s Tyler Kingkade, DeVos will reportedly speak about the college campus gender equality policy that’s “centered around equal opportunity and equal protection for all” at George Mason University’s Law School in Arlington, VA.
Since DeVos was confirmed in February, many advocacy groups have raised concerns that the Secretary of Education would roll back Title IX guidelines. While Title IX is best known as a broad tool for enforcing equal treatment of female and male student athletes, it also offers other important protections in areas including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and protections for trans and parenting students. In the past six months DeVos rescinded protections for transgender students and made the investigation process for college sexual assault less transparent, while also threatening to cut resources and funding.
One impactful directive on campus sexual violence is the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, a comprehensive set of guidelines that clarifies what schools’ responsibilities are under the law to enforce Title IX. According to BuzzFeed, insiders expect DeVos to discuss Obama-era policies on campus sexual violence such as the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter on Thursday, and potentially roll them back.
“I’m very concerned about what it means for the federal government’s view on sexual assault, and their view on survivors, for them to possibly rescind a guidance that is critical in helping students understand what their own rights are,” Davidson said. “That is a very bad leadership signal and I believe it would have a trickle-down effect to university presidents and to other community leaders. If the government doesn’t think that this is important than why should they?”
“I’m very concerned about what it means for the federal government’s view on sexual assault and their view on survivors for them to possibly rescind a guidance that is critical in helping students understand what their own rights are.”
So... What Is The “Dear Colleague Letter”?
The Dear Colleague Letter is essentially a reminder to universities and Title IX administrators that schools need to follow the Title IX law.
“If DeVos stands up on stage on Thursday and says that the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter is rescinded, the law hasn’t changed at all. Survivors have the same rights, schools have the same responsibility,” Brodsky said.
Davidson and Brodsky agreed that rolling back the Dear Colleague Letter would simply make the campus sexual violence reporting process that much more confusing ― for survivors and universities.
“It helps students understand what their rights are,” Davidson said. “But it’s not just survivors who are really going to struggle with this. The people who use the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter the most ― or are supposed to use it the most ― are Title IX administrators, the people who are conducting these investigations on campuses across the country. It’s going to be really hard for them to do their jobs effectively if they don’t have this kind of guidance. Schools need more clarification, not less.”
In July, DeVos met with three groups to discuss sexual violence on college campuses in separate 90-minute roundtable discussions. The groups included survivors and advocates, university representatives and attorneys, and ― by far the most controversial ― students who had been falsely accused of assault.
Brodsky, who was at the July meeting, said that in those discussions with DeVos the overwhelming consensus from universities and legal representatives was that the department should not rescind the Dear Colleague Letter.
Davidson, who was also in attendance at the July meetings, noted that most of the “wrongfully accused” advocates were from Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) groups. These groups tend to believe that sexual violence is over-reported, and that false accusations happen more often than they actually do. (According to research, 2 to 10 percent of reported rapes turn out to be false.)
“Among communities that believe [survivors cry rape], I think they see rescinding the Dear Colleague Letter as a win because they believe that it will help prevent kangaroo courts,” Davidson said.
The Dear Colleague Letter, however, does include guidelines to help both parties ― the victim and the alleged attacker ― navigate the reporting process fairly.
“A lot of this conversation arranged around the Dear Colleague Letter is that it’s a threat to the procedural rights of accused students,” Brodsky noted. “But actually the Dear Colleague Letter and Title IX provide more robust protections than are available under the U.S. Constitution.”
“If we rescind the guidance... it makes it harder for students to stand up for their own civil rights.”
On a more granular level, rescinding the Dear Colleague Letter would impact the ability of survivors to ensure their schools are following Title IX procedures.
Davidson said that when she was a college student going through the Title IX process, she was able to access the Dear Colleague Letter online and hold her university accountable.
“I was able to very easily find the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter online, highlight the sections that were not being followed in my proceeding, and take it to the Title IX office and say, ‘This is what you’re not doing and it’s wrong and I deserve a fairer process than this, in fact I’m guaranteed it under Title IX,’” she told HuffPost. “If we rescind the guidance it makes it harder for students to do that. It makes it harder for students to stand up for their own civil rights and to know their own civil rights.”