Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plans to meet with various groups on July 13 to discuss the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, but, before she does that, a group of 118 sexual assault survivors have a few things they would like the 59-year-old billionaire to know.
In a letter published on July 12 on TeenVogue.com, the dozens of sexual assault survivors from 25 states and Washington D.C. implore DeVos and the current administration to enforce Title IX protections and guard the civil rights of sexual assault survivors at colleges and universities that have been “failing” them for decades.
“Exactly who are you here to serve?” the letter asks DeVos directly.
Though Title IX is perhaps most widely known for enforcing equal treatment of male and female student athletes, the legislation dating back to 1972 more broadly prohibits discrimination at the federal level based on gender. According to KnowYourIX.org, Title IX states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
While in theory Title IX should protect survivors of sexual assault, it’s often ignored by schools, leaving said survivors in an incredibly vulnerable position. As the letter explains, “As survivors of sexual violence, we’ve continually had to advocate for ourselves, often because no one would advocate for us. We have been forced to ask this question again and again, of all the institutions that are supposed to serve us: of our Title IX administrators, police officers, schools, teachers, deans, and now, our government.”
Instead of rattling off troubling statistics — like RAINN’s finding that 18-24-year-old women in college are three times more likely to be the victim of sexual violence — the missive takes a more intimate turn.
“For us, this is personal, and traumatizing. From the moment we were raped or assaulted, the question of who protects us has haunted us all,” it continues. “Collectively, we represent thousands of instances of institutional failure at colleges, universities, and K-12 schools. We suffered immensely, as did our academics, relationships, and overall well-being. Institutional betrayal forced many of us, and countless others, to leave school.”
According to a 2015 survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities, more than one in four female college students will experience sexual assault by the time they graduate, and the institutional betrayal mentioned in the letter is a real problem. Per The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights currently has 339 open investigations involving allegations that colleges and universities mishandled reports of campus sexual violence.
While the missive notes the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter — guidance put in place by the Obama administration stipulating educational institutions have a legal responsibility to protect their students from gender discrimination — aided sexual assault survivors, there’s palpable fear DeVos could take such protections, and more, away.
“At every turn, Betsy DeVos has refused to commit to enforcing Title IX. This reluctance is escalating into a full blown threat to future enforcement of Title IX,” the letter says, pointing out that the current administration has already rolled back Title IX protections for transgender students. “Now, the administration has signaled that it is seriously considering further dismantling protections for survivors of sexual violence by weakening the oversight and enforcement mechanisms of the federal government — enforcement that many vulnerable students and survivors need.”
“We come forward with a simple request: Don’t,” the letter adds.
HuffPost reports the idea to write this letter came after DeVos’s July 13 meetings were announced. In addition to meeting with sexual assault survivors for 90 minutes, Jess Davidson — managing director of the organization End Rape On Campus — tells the publication DeVos will also be meeting with people who wish to speak on behalf of the “wrongly accused” for the same amount of time. DeVos’s final 90-minute session is scheduled to involve college and university legal teams.
Though DeVos deserves some credit for meeting with sexual assault survivors, the lack of time she’s devoting to the issue coupled with her subsequent meeting regarding the “rights of the wrongly accused” is problematic.
As Davidson explains, “The fact that this is the first time, to our knowledge, that survivors are meeting with the secretary of education and that they’re only being given 90 minutes is very frustrating.”
Davidson also notes some people at DeVos’s second meeting are members of the National Coalition for Men, which she described as a “hate group” with a penchant for harassing rape survivors online.
As the letter concludes, “To Betsy DeVos, President Trump and the rest of the Trump administration: Survivors of sexual assault have refused to be silent since this administration began its journey to the White House. We will not be silenced now.”
Cover image via a katz / Shutterstock.com