DeVos halts progress toward ending campus rape

DeVos halts progress toward ending campus rape

There is little common ground among liberals and conservatives in the Culture Wars. But it can be found amid the fraught landscape of sex discrimination and sexual assault.

Last week’s announcement by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDemocratic senator: Trump Jr. meeting with Gulf emissary 'absolutely crazy' Trump Jr. met with Gulf adviser who offered help to win election: report Ten dead after shooting at Texas high school MORE that she will replace the Obama administration’s 2011 Title IX Guidance to colleges and universities has already been praised by those on the right — and the left.

There are thoughtful people in both groups who believe it is wrong for colleges and universities to investigate allegations of sexual assault by students. Such complaints, they say, should be investigated by police and, if warranted, prosecuted in criminal courts.


While these sentiments sound reasonable, they belie a fundamental ignorance of the law.

Title VII prohibits workplaces, including colleges, from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Title IX requires colleges and universities to provide “prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee complaints” based on sex discrimination. Case law has firmly established that sexual violence is an issue of gender-based discrimination.

Most victims of rape on campus (70 percent) are assaulted by a friend or acquaintance, according to a 2015 survey of more than 150,000 students by the Association of American Universities (AAU). They may live in the same dorm. They may attend the same classes. It is not unreasonable to expect that a request for class or housing accommodations so that a survivor of sexual assault is not constantly crossing paths with their attacker be taken seriously and dealt with professionally.

The majority of people who experience sexual assault are not students. But the problem of sexual violence at colleges and universities is widespread nonetheless. The AAU found that more than one in 10 (11.7 percent) of student respondents reported having experienced nonconsensual sexual contact.

The number jumped to nearly one in four (23.1 percent) among female students and those “identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, [or] questioning.” Incapacitation due to alcohol or drugs was a factor in a “significant percentage” of sexual assaults.

Even if colleges immediately handed off complaints to police and prosecutors, the physical evidence required for a criminal prosecution is almost non-existent in these cases. Practically speaking, only a handful would ever be referred by police to a prosecutor. The resolution of criminal cases takes years. It would be unusual for a student assaulted in their first month of college to get any form of justice before their senior year.

In the aftermath of sexual assault, it is not uncommon for survivors to become depressed and anxious, fall behind in their school work, and even drop out of school. When university administrators ignore the pervasive nature of sexual violence on campus as well as its aftermath — which clearly interferes with a survivor’s access to education — they are breaking the law. The Title IX Guidance provided to school leaders in 2011 was a reminder of their legal responsibilities to all students.

In the six years since the guidance was issued, many schools have made significant progress in addressing the problem. In April, the AAU released an extensive report summarizing its survey of 55 of the 62 leading research universities that make up its membership on the impact of the Title IX Guidance.

It found that every school surveyed had newly “developed, redefined, or enhanced programs to assist victims of sexual assault and misconduct.” Ninety-five percent of them are also sharing information about assaults among college departments — making it easier to find patterns of behavior and implement effective, evidence-based methods of prevention.

Most of them (90 percent) have also increased resources to train students and staff on prevention and safe ways for bystanders to intervene or report an assault.  

Last week’s announcement by DeVos sends a discouraging and dispiriting message to all students. Those who have been accused of sexual assault as well as survivors deserve an orderly process for adjudication of sexual assault complaints. There is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, when the government abdicates its responsibility to enforce the nation’s laws.

Gina Scaramella is executive director of The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.