The education secretary needs to shift her priorities.
On Thursday morning, nearly a hundred people gathered in front of the Education Department to bear witness. Students, activists, and elected officials read stories we had collected from sexual violence survivors about how it affected their education. Inside the department, I joined survivors and other advocates in a meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose agency has indicated it may roll back protections for student survivors.
For months now, we have urged DeVos to meet with survivors to understand why their civil rights protections are so important. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has long required schools to prevent and respond to reports of sexual assault to make sure all students can learn safely. The department shares responsibility with other agencies and courts to enforce that law when schools mistreat survivors. As we told the secretary in our meeting, too often students miss class, drop out of clubs, and even leave school because their schools don’t address violence or harassment and don’t make sure that they can continue to access educational opportunities. Many struggle when their schools fail to provide mental health care and academic accommodations, as they are required to do by law. I believe the secretary left the meeting with a clearer understanding of why Title IX protections are so important to these young people.
But the stories of a handful of survivors are not nearly enough to make critical policy decisions. As the stories read outside the Education Department today show, survivors have a diverse range of identities, experiences, needs, and concerns. I urged DeVos to visit students of all ages across the country to hear about their experiences and how their schools and the department can help them learn and thrive.
Such a listening tour by the secretary would be especially helpful in the wake of disturbing statements from her senior staff. Recently, Candice Jackson, the department official charged with overseeing all civil rights enforcement, told the New York Times that 90% of sexual violence reports involve having sex while drunk and later regretting it, not violence. In doing so, she perpetuated an inaccurate and insidious rape myth that imperils survivors’ recovery and fight for justice, both in schools and in the courts.
Jackson has since apologized for her statement but we still worry that this uninformed and dangerous view will ultimately drive policy coming out of the department. That would be little surprise, given that DeVos also met with anti-victim extremist groups such as the National Coalition for Men and Families Advocating for Campus Equality. The former’s president once said that a woman was beaten by her partner because she “aggravated” him, as though domestic violence is the victim’s fault.
Every student deserves to learn in a safe environment free from sexual discrimination and violence. That’s Title IX’s promise. DeVos needs to meet with students at K-12 schools and colleges across the country to understand the nature and extent of the problem and the department’s critical role in the solution. She should make clear that she will stand up for them and continue to enforce Title IX protections for all.
Fatima Goss Graves is president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.