I was in the audience when Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the University of New Hampshire in the spring of 2011. Gone, he said, was the age of impunity when schools could mistreat student survivors of sexual violence. The Education Department had recommitted to its long-standing job of enforcing these students’ rights under Title IX, the civil rights law that forbids sex discrimination in education. As its first step, Biden announced, the department sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all school administrators reminding them of their responsibilities, summarizing court decisions and regulations, and advising on best practices.
Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a very different announcement at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School: Under her leadership, the department no longer believes all the rules in the guidance letter are actually required.
This announcement sent a very clear message to student survivors: The government does not have your back. And there are so many young people who need DeVos’s help even as she turns away. A 2016 Justice Department study found that nearly one in four women students report experiencing sexual misconduct in college. And the problem starts even before college. A recent national survey by my organization, the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), found that one in five girls ages 14 to 18 report having been kissed or touched without consent. Latina, black, and Native American girls and LGBTQ students are particularly vulnerable to this violence.
DeVos plans to use a sham process of collecting public input to change the Title IX rules. How do we know it will be a sham? The department is already in the midst of collecting public comments on all of its regulations. The vast majority of those—over 100,000—support the current law and guidance. DeVos has already heard from the public. She just didn’t like what we have to say.
DeVos’s arguments for changing the guidance are also deeply flawed. She claims she needs to roll back the guidance to protect students accused of misconduct. Yet the terrible examples she provides of schools mistreating the accused—for example, by failing to provide notice of the accusation or access to the evidence—are expressly forbidden by the guidance. Under President Barack Obama, the Education Department found a college in violation of Title IX for exactly these errors. The answer is clearly to enforce the law, not undermine it.
The good news is that DeVos’s announcement doesn’t change the law. The Supreme Court has long made clear that schools must respond promptly and equitably to reports of sexual harassment, including rape. Courts around the country have held that they must provide support for survivors, like mental health care and dorm changes, and conduct fair investigations. These interventions are crucial to ensuring that students can continue to learn in the wake of violence.
For the decades before the guidance letter, too many schools failed to respect these rights. As a result, many survivors dropped out of school; some were even encouraged to leave until their rapists graduated. The guidance didn’t fix all the problems; the NWLC still represents students, including those in high school, who were terribly mistreated after reporting rape and harassment. But things were getting better. Educators knew the government was serious about Title IX. And so, crucially, did students. In droves, they turned to the department for help when their schools broke the law.
DeVos cannot unwind the powerful movement of advocates driving change on their campus. And while Thursday’s announcement deeply saddens me, I find hope in the wonderful advocates, including many young survivors, who refuse to back down. Just yesterday, we and our student allies delivered a petition in support of the “Dear Colleague” letter with over 100,000 signatures. Together, we will hold this department accountable if it undermines students’ rights. And we will keep the pressure on any school that takes this announcement as a sign it no longer has to follow the law.
Title IX is a promise to students: Sexual assault should never spell the end to a young person’s education. We won’t let Betsy DeVos break that commitment.
Fatima Goss Graves is president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center.