JWI was not impressed with Betsy DeVos’ Cabinet hearing. She refused to commit to enforcing Title IX, which provides important protections to survivors of sexual violence. Let’s unpack why that’s deeply concerning.
by Lauren Landau
JWI issued an advocacy alert to its supporters last week, urging them to tell their senators to “ask the tough questions.” Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos had her hearing before the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) Committee on January 17. After receiving DeVos' ethics review, the Committee postponed its vote from this week to January 31.
JWI was among the many organizations hoping that, during her hearing, DeVos would commit to preventing campus sexual violence, enforcing Title IX, and protecting the civil rights of survivors.
This ask is so important that survivor advocacy organizations End Rape on Campus (EROC) and Know Your IX teamed up on a powerful social media campaign called #DearBetsy. People tweeted, submitted videos, and penned Facebook posts asking DeVos to enforce and protect Title IX. Survivor Maya Weinstein, who spoke at JWI’s Women to Watch Gala in December, shared her own video.
After being raped by another student and subsequently taking some time to recover, Weinstein reported the assault to her university. But school administrators did not give her the support she needed, and she “found only injustice on the part of the university” during her hearing. After hours and days spent fighting a broken system, she turned to Title IX.
“Title IX backed me up and supported and validated my feelings that what the university had done to me was wrong,” she says in the video.
Sexual assault survivor and activist Julia Dixon attended the hearing and says Title IX has had a substantial impact on her life, even though she was unable to personally file a complaint under the law due to timing restrictions. “Title IX holds a lot of promise for students who have been victimized by sexual violence, myself included,” she says. “The rights that it protects and the avenues it gives students for enacting that protection and also responding if they do not get the help that they receive is vital and crucial to making sure all students have the potential on campus that anyone else does.”
Many associate the civil rights law with sports, but Title IX is also a critical tool for helping survivors of sexual violence. It ensures that all students have equal access to education. “What we know is that sexual violence and sexual harassment prohibit students from having full access to education, and therefore are a violation of Title IX and their civil rights,” says EROC’s Director of Media & Strategic Communications Colleen Daly, who was at DeVos’ hearing.
Essentially, she says, schools have a responsibility to prevent sexual violence and to respond appropriately should it occur.
“So what that does is it provides survivors with certain accommodations, things as simple as ensuring that they’re not in the same chemistry class as their perpetrator or down the hall of their dorm,” Daly says. “It ensures that they have access to counseling services. It ensures that both survivors and perpetrators have fair campus hearings. It ensures that school are doing everything in their power to create an environment free from violence, and that is huge.”
“Title IX protects a student’s right to access education free from discrimination,” says JWI’s Manager of Advocacy Initiatives Ilana Flemming. “For young women, educational attainment is key for long-term economic security, and Title IX helps ensure that a sexual violence survivor can safely remain on campus and continue her education. Lack of proper accommodation or enforcement means that a survivor’s ability to attend school and earn a degree is seriously compromised.”
Dixon says many people were unable to physically sit in on DeVos’s hearing, which could only accommodate a fraction of those gathered. “I think it’s important for [DeVos] to remember that there are a lot of people that are counting on this position and counting on the nominee to uphold certain rights and protections,” she says, “and those people, a lot of them were there. I just don’t know if she saw them.”
Using what little time they had, members of Congress did ask DeVos if she would uphold those safeguards. Typically, there are two rounds of questions, but this hearing gave each senator five minutes to speak—conveniently brief for an underprepared nominee. During her hearing, DeVos had the opportunity to alleviate concerns and align herself with survivors of sexual assault. Unfortunately, her answers left something to be desired.
Senator Patty Murray (WA) expressed her interest in hearing DeVos’ thoughts on Title IX and how we can do everything possible to end the scourge of campus sexual assault.”
“I was not happy about how you talked about this issue when we met,” she says. “I’m hopeful you have learned more about it since then and are prepared to address it seriously.”
If DeVos has learned more about sexual violence, she didn’t show it.
Senator Bob Casey (PA) asked if DeVos would uphold the “2011 Title IX guidance as it relates to sexual assault on campus,” but she failed to give a straight answer. When pressed, she said, “it would be premature for me to do that today.”
“It is not “premature” for a nominee to be Secretary of Education to commit to enforcing campus sexual assault laws,” Senator Casey later said in a statement. “Ms. DeVos’ answer to my question, in which she refused to commit to enforcing the current law on campus sexual assaults contained in Title IX is deeply troubling. We’ve come too far and have too far to go on campus sexual assaults to go back to the days of zero accountability.”
“I would just want to know what her reservations are on pledging to uphold the protections that Title IX already enforces,” Dixon says. “We are not asking her to do anything that’s not already in place at this point. We’re just asking her to continue on the path we’ve been going on for the last few years. Her response I felt was very noncommittal. I don’t know why she wants to wait until she’s in office to decide or to answer.”
Daly says DeVos claimed an interest in speaking with school administrators and members of the committee before making a decision. “What she didn’t say was that she wanted to learn from the people that are most directly impacted by Title IX, which are survivors, and that’s deeply troubling,” she says. “You would hope that in an effort to get a full understanding of issue, which is what she indicated that she would like to do, that she would consult with those who are most directed impacted.”
During the hearing, Senator Casey called sexual assault an “epidemic” and “the ultimate betrayal,” before detailing his efforts on Campus SaVe Act and detailing the law’s successes in protecting survivors. One of those protections is using the preponderance of evidence standard.
DeVos initially spoke to the severity of sexual assault as a crime, before pivoting and saying, “If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and the current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim, the rights of the victims as well as those who are accused,” DeVos said.
Not only does this thin response inspire little confidence in DeVos, it also raises new concerns. Daly says, when people balk at the idea of the preponderance of evidence standard, their argument is usually that if a student is found guilty and is suspended or expelled, that it “ruins their life.” She says students are punished all the time for plagiarism and other conduct violations, but there’s no outcry about how that may affect their future. The punishments for sexual assault hearings are also less severe when the preponderance of evidence standard is used.
“The first thing is that [the campus adjudication process] isn’t a criminal system,” Daly says. “If the preponderance of evidence standard is used in most civil rights actions and in most harassment hearings, that’s what’s used in these kinds of cases, and it doesn’t make sense that survivors should have a higher standard of proof than other students.”
She also notes that “the criminal justice system isn’t always an option for survivors, so when they go to the school, they’re not asking for jail time.”
DeVos’ resistance to commit to enforcing the Title IX guidance raises serious concerns.
“The Obama administration’s focus on campus sexual violence has made an enormous difference in terms of awareness and response,” says Flemming. “Hundreds of schools were investigated for failing to comply with Title IX, and the Department of Education issued guidance to help schools follow the law. Rolling back guidance and enforcement now would be harmful for schools and students.”
“We want to know, who doesn’t want clarity provided on schools’ obligations for Title IX? Schools need that clarity. Students need that clarity. It’s a mutually beneficial document,” Daly says.
“Title IX isn’t going anywhere is what we want people to know,” Daly says. “The other thing we want people to know is that we’re not going anywhere. We’re here. We’re going to continue advocating on behalf of students everywhere. We’re going to continue pressing for these rights to be upheld, and that’s not changing anytime soon.”
JWI will be right there with them.