The education secretary’s policy switch will let schools off the hook, focusing on the ‘victims of the lack of due process’ rather than serial offenders
As she announced the rollback of Obama-era rules on campus sexual assault, education secretary Betsy DeVos seemed at times less like the head of the Department of Education than the department of rape apologists.
“The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students,” DeVos said in a speech at George Mason University on Thursday afternoon. “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”
It’s notable that the “victims” she seems most worried about aren’t those of sexual assault – they’re “victims of a lack of due process”.
She went on to say: “Too many cases involve students and faculties who’ve faced investigation and punishment simply for speaking their minds.” But she didn’t say that the case she’s abstractly referring to is one in a thousand – or that at the end of it, the professor in question was cleared.
She didn’t talk about the fact that according to US Department of Justice reports, an estimated 19% of college-age women will suffer attempted or completed sexual assault, but that only 12% of those cases ever get reported – or that only between two and 10% of campus sexual assault accusations are actually false, per the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Those aren’t the victims she seems to care about.
Neither did a key lieutenant, Candice Jackson – hired by DeVos in April to head up the department’s civil rights office, which oversees campus assault policy – when she told the New York Times that she thinks a full 90% of sexual assault claims stem from drunken, regretted sex.
She and DeVos aren’t unique in their disproportionate concern for the reputation of the accused over rape victims. Far from it.
When I spoke to Darbi Goodwin, who reported her rape by a high school classmate in 2014, for instance, authority figures repeatedly prioritized the feelings of the accused. “We know him and he would never do something like that,” she recalled them saying of the young man in question.
It’s also a familiar line to anyone who followed the Stanford rape case.
It’s been over a year since student Brock Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster after a fraternity party, and then was let off easy when a judge said he feared the incident could have a “severe impact” on the champion swimmer, who had once hoped to compete in the Olympics – a point repeatedly brought up throughout the trial.
It’s a curious set of sympathies indeed for a department of government whose purpose is to enforce civil rights
The case underscored a culture of white male privilege evident not just in the judge’s ruling but also, in Turner’s father’s argument that the damage done to his reputation was penance enough, “a steep price”, he said, “for 20 minutes of action”. And in so many other places.
It’s the same culture that was invoked by Donald Trump when, in the final stretch of his campaign for president, he wrote off his past boasting about grabbing women by the genitals as “locker-room talk”. So no wonder it’s the culture underlying the loosening of requirements on his education department’s handling of campus sexual assaults.
Instead of looking to see if complaints fit a broader pattern of discrimination with a given school or individual, for instance, the department will now only investigate complaints as isolated incidents, barring extraordinary circumstances, as I wrote last month.
Such policies not only let schools off the hook, they ignore the fact that perpetrators of rape are often serial offenders – and also that more than half of all alleged rapists have at least one prior conviction, according to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Take, for instance, the recent case of University of Wisconsin-Madison student Alec Cook, whose attorneys asked for 11 separate trials on a series of charges, ranging from forcible sexual assault to disorderly conduct, after allegations from 11 different women.
That’s an understandable perspective for a lawyer of an accused man seeking to put his client’s best foot forward. But it’s a curious set of sympathies indeed for a department of government whose purpose is to enforce civil rights.
In the end DeVos is simply defending the people she and her boss have always been most interested in defending. The sexually accused are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white (57%, according to RAINN), and presumably, entitled. In other words, they are Trump’s core constituency to a T.
Trump rose to power by championing a culture that prioritizes white men who’d grown used to having the world at their feet – not real victims. And those values have been prominently on display in the education department at least since Candice Jackson was hired in April.
Among Jackson’s top-billed qualifications for the job, it was recently reported, was her attempt to silence Trump’s sexual accusers. She did so by bringing forward women accusing Bill Clinton of sexual assault ahead of a presidential debate in what amounted to a surprise guilt-by-association attack on Hillary Clinton. Now Jackson and DeVos are at work trying to silence sexual accusers coming up through schools across the country.
Lucia Graves is a Guardian US columnist