US Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at her hearing Tuesday that she couldn’t commit to continuing the Obama administration’s policy of threatening to withhold Title IX funds from schools that don’t investigate campus sexual assault.
In response to questioning from Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, she said she couldn’t commit to continuing the Obama administration’s guidance about the civil rights law or to withholding funds from schools that do a less-than-satisfactory job of investigating campus sexual assault. According to the guidance, schools that don’t provide appropriate investigations of sexual assault allegations risk being in violation of Title IX and losing funding.
Then, referring to several campus sexual assault survivors who were in attendance, Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, asked Ms DeVos, “Can you promise them and me that you will not, as has been in the press, considered, quote, reining in the Office for Civil Rights and the department’s work to protect students from campus sexual assault?”
DeVos: Senator, if confirmed, I commit that I will be looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled, and with great sensitivity to those who are victims and also considering perpetrators as well. But please know that I am very sensitive to this as a —
Murray: Yes, I heard you say that, but you will not take back the words that you will rein in the Office for Civil Rights?
DeVos: I don’t believe those were the words that I used.
Murray: That is a quote that’s been attributed to you.
But according to Politico, Ms DeVos is correct: She was never quoted as saying the words Ms Murray attributed to her. A few civil rights leaders, in fact, have called on OCR to reduce its reach in dealing with campus sexual assault, according to a report in the Washington Times, but these remarks weren’t attributed to Ms DeVos in any independent news source I could find.
Calls for a reduction of the role of the federal education department in Title IX enforcement go back at least to the Reagan administration, however, and the force OCR should exert on schools has been a matter for spirited debate throughout the history of the OCR, not just in terms of campus sexual assault but in athletic opportunities for women as well.
Look, campus sexual assault is an important issue. Ms Murray was right about that, in saying that one in five women attending college will be victims of campus sexual assault. That merits more than a US senator spreading misinformation from her committee chair about how the OCR looks to handle it. The issue deserves better treatment.
But, as was pointed out several times during the hearing, Democratic senators felt they’ve had too little time to research Ms DeVos’s background, a problem that might have given rise to the incorrect attribution about “reining in” OCR’s work.
As for Mr Casey’s questions, civil rights commissioners as well as many Republicans have expressed concern about the OCR’s ability to manage a caseload as big as sexual harassment and assault give it. As we have reported, sexual assault is a crime and should be investigated by the police or a court of law, not by an ad hoc tribunal at a college. Congress, not university administrators, should determine what the laws are, and OCR may indeed need to be reined in on this question in order to protect students more effectively.
What schools do well, with the US Education Department in the lead, is teach and learn. Students at all levels across the country are calling on schools to educate them better about sexual assault.
Turning to Illinois, we find students at the Phoenix Military Academy in Chicago making such a call. Writes Ingrid Pureco in The Phoenix Chronicle, the student newspaper:
Sexual assault … is never talked about enough because of its nature, particularly in school. Even if it is for more mature audiences, students must realize that it can happen to anyone, and it is important to know in order to take the right precautions. Approximately 1.8 million adolescents in the US have been a victim of sexual assault. Teenagers 16 to 19 years of age are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than the general population, all according to the US Department of Justice. …
Whether the subtopic is STD’s or pregnancy or sexual assault, the general topic of sex should never be ignored or put aside for students to learn for themselves. Teenagers will be teenagers and should be taught right from wrong while still giving them the chance to make their own decisions. With that said, sexual activity carries a lot of responsibility and caution that some teens are simply not ready for.
The OCR maintains a list of colleges that it considers not to be investigating sexual assault fully. But the office has no teeth for the perpetrators—it might withhold funding—and anyway, crimes should be investigated and punished by criminal, not educational, authorities.
Schools need to establish programs to provide a more appropriate education for students on the subject of sexual assault. One program that has been running for several decades at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is the Haven Program, an online webinar required for everyone attending and employed by the university. The First Year Campus Acquaintance Rape Education, FYCARE, now in its 20th year, is mandatory for all incoming freshmen.