How Betsy DeVos Could Hurt Sexual Assault Survivors Like Me
I hadn’t realized I was assaulted during my time at a Jewish day school until I got to college. After I experienced a series of sporadic and paralyzing panic attacks, a therapist at the University of Maryland helped me recognize that I had been sexually assaulted by someone I had thought was a good friend.
I never wanted any survivor to feel as powerless as I felt, and so during senior year I became involved with the anti-sexual violence movement on our campus. I worked to include consent education in the University of Maryland’s orientation program. It was through this work that I discovered Title IX and the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, a Department of Education document that provides crucial recommendations on how schools should support students after assaults occur.
Not only is the DCL useful for college administrators and faculty, as it outlines the best ways to help their students, but it also has been instrumental for survivors in learning what resources they can access from universities after rape.
The DCL requires colleges to take action to ensure that survivors are able to get extensions on papers in the immediate aftermath of an assault, and that that they don’t have to live in the same dorm as their assailant or eat in the same lunch hall. Because of the DCL, survivors are also able to access therapy free of charge — the very kind that helped end my panic attacks. Title IX and the Dear Colleague Letter also recognize that the decision to report a perpetrator to the police can be a difficult one — in my case, I never would have reported my friend to the police — and provides student survivors with an alternative means of accessing justice outside a broken criminal legal system. Schools must also ensure that disciplinary processes are prompt and equitable and that both parties are afforded notice and an equal opportunity to be heard.
I have many friends who were able to graduate college because their universities took their responsibilities under Title IX seriously, allowing them to focus on their classes instead of their rape. Sadly I also have friends whose educations were put on hold or cut short because they didn’t know about their rights under Title IX, or because their schools illegally told them they should “take a break from school until their perpetrator graduated.” When I reflect back on my own education, I sometimes wonder if I would have been a better student if I understood what had happened to me, and if I knew about Title IX in high school.
Since her confirmation as secretary of education, Betsy DeVos has embarked upon a campaign to weaken federal enforcement of civil rights laws. She is reportedly considering rescinding the Dear Colleague Letter, a move that would be devastating to the thousands of students who relied on it to understand their rights. Furthermore, under her leadership, the department’s Office of Civil Rights, the entity in charge of handling investigations of Title IX violations at universities, has opted to scale back requirements that investigators address systemic issues. Without thorough and timely investigations, there will be little accountability for schools that mistreat survivors.
And to add insult to injury, on Thursday, July 13, DeVos will be meeting with “men’s rights activist” groups on the same day that she meets with survivors and advocates. These groups include the National Coalition fpr Men, an organization that consistently blames victims for the abuse they experienced and harasses survivors. When DeVos provides a platform to men’s rights activists, she sends the message to survivors that our stories are less valuable than those of the men who continuously degrade us. When she rolls back federal enforcement, it signals that the DOE is no longer concerned with whether survivors can access critical on-campus services and, ultimately, continue our educations.
Secretary DeVos, we know that you are new to the education field. You need to listen to student survivors and recent alumni who have been doing this work on the ground, on college campuses and in high schools for the past five years. Title IX and the Dear Colleague Letter help survivors stay in school, and access their civil right to an education free from violence. Student survivors have endured enough trauma; do not force us back to a time where we could be re-victimized by the very institutions meant to keep us safe.
Rebecca Krevat is a communications coordinator at Know Your IX, a survivor- and youth-led organization that aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools.