Betsy DeVos was always a controversial choice for Secretary of Education. She was a strong advocate of “school choice,” a system that allows parents and children to choose where to go to school, which critics claim undermines the public school system. Her status as a billionaire and past donations to many Christian organizations has also raised concerns about a lack of impartiality. With this in mind, I was never optimistic about DeVos’ future plans for Title IX enforcement and her potential impact on college campuses.
DeVos made an announcement earlier this month that only validated my concerns. She announced that the education department seeks to rescind the Obama administration’s orders to colleges and universities intended to stop sexual assault on campus, which were laid out in a 2011 Dear Colleague Letter. DeVos called current Title IX directives a “failed system” that frequently ignored the rights of the accused. The University needs to reaffirm its commitment to the 2011 letter and publicly oppose DeVos’ potential changes.
Title IX experts and advocates stated DeVos’ proposed alterations would harm sexual assault survivors by encouraging “victim-blaming” and making it more difficult for them to decide to report an incident of sexual violence. It would reverse the progress that universities are slowly but surely making as activists raise awareness of the issue and school administrators comply with Obama-era directives. Young women, especially survivors, shouldn’t have to worry about an administration that does not provide the support they need after coming forward and sharing that they experienced sexual assault. The campus environment would feel more dangerous to them, and less conducive to learning and enjoyment of student organizations and activities.
GW has faced its fair share of controversy for how it handles sexual assault cases.
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said last week that “officials will closely monitor the processes that DeVos described in her address, especially as the University reviews its own Title IX procedures.” Csellar also affirmed GW’s commitment to having a strong Title IX program that supports our community. But she declined to say if the University expects to make any modifications to these procedures if federal policy changes.
This blanket statement is not enough on the University’s part, and both current students and alumni have acknowledged that. More than 300 alumni have demanded in a letter circulating online that the University vow to help survivors and continue the Obama-era Title IX guidelines. Students Against Sexual Assault also released a letter standing up against the decision and saying they would work to protect the standards of the Dear Colleague Letter. The University should communicate their commitment by following up with Csellar’s original statement. Peter Konwerski, the dean of student affairs; Gabriel Slifka, the director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities; Rory Muhammad, the Title IX coordinator and University President Thomas LeBlanc should release their own statements reiterating the message. This would be a powerful way to restore survivors’ faith in GW’s handling of sexual violence cases. It would also indicate that GW is willing to learn from past mistakes handling sexual assault complaints by showing they’re here for students even when the Department of Education seems like they’re not.
This move would follow the example of other universities in the wake of DeVos’ announcement. A university spokeswoman for University of Chicago stated that the institution is not considering changing its disciplinary rules for adjudicating sexual assault. Two University of California, Berkeley officials wrote a letter in support of Obama-era Title IX policies, assuring students and fellow staff members that the school’s policies will not change in light of DeVos’ remarks.
The University faces a choice: it can try to move past these problems by showing support for survivors, or do nothing, leaving these students in a state of uncertainty.
Within the past year, GW has faced its fair share of controversy for how it handles sexual assault cases. The Title IX office has faced issues with short-staffing and high turnover, and many members of the student body protested the mishandling of alumna Aniqa Raihan’s sexual violence case last spring. And currently, GW is also one of over 250 universities facing a federal investigation for possible Title IX violations. Now, the University faces a choice: it can try to move past these problems by showing support for survivors, or do nothing, leaving these students in a state of uncertainty.
If the University reaffirms its commitment to upholding current Title IX policies, it will help give survivors the courage to come forward and promote a culture that discourages sexual violence. If GW does not speak out against DeVos’ proposed changes, survivors will not be as forthcoming about the crimes committed against them and perpetrators will see their actions are less likely to face serious consequences. The University has to build up its reputation. It does not need to lend more credence to last spring’s #GWProtectsRapists social media campaign, which Raihan started with the support of Students Against Sexual Assault after the University was unwilling to revise her assailant’s punishment.
DeVos’ changes to current sexual violence policies threaten to reverse the progress universities across the nation have made under the Obama administration. GW cannot join her in reversing this trend. Survivors need all the support they can get in the painful choice to come forward. DeVos shows concern for students who are falsely accused of sexual assault, but such cases only make up about 7 percent of sexual assault cases. Meanwhile, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network estimates that out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free. The least the University can do is be there for the individuals that need it the most, and now is the time for the GW administration to show this unwavering commitment.
Diana Wallens, a junior majoring in criminal justice, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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