Why Is Betsy DeVos Listening to Groups That Smear Rape Survivors?

Advocates for sexual assault survivors worry the education secretary will revoke Obama-era guidelines for investigating assaults on campus.

[Photo: Betsy Devos sitting in front of podium with microphone]
Betsy DeVos held back-to-back “listening sessions,” first with a handful of students with stories of having been sexually assaulted on campus, followed—more controversially—by students and advocates with stories of having been wrongfully accused of sexual assault. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Chugging mini water bottles on a steamy July morning, sexual assault survivors and activists tried to convince Education Secretary Betsy DeVos not to weaken guidelines for schools on how to investigative sexual assault.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) last Thursday joined survivors in front of the Education Department building in Washington, D.C., in reading stories about high schools and universities mishandling investigations into their sexual assaults. Organized by the advocacy groups End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, the National Women’s Law Center, and UltraViolet, the “speak out” drew around 100 activists to the front steps of the Education Department building, where DeVos held back-to-back “listening sessions,” first with a handful of students and advocates with stories of having been sexually assaulted on campus, followed—more controversially—by students and advocates with stories of having been wrongfully accused of sexual assault.

A recent statement from a top Education Department Office of Civil Rights official about sexual assault on college campuses, as well as the secretary’s willingness to meet with organizations that have made statements indicating many rape victims lie, prompted the activists to rally, organizers told Rewire. They worry DeVos is planning to revoke Obama-era guidelines that require schools to tighten processes for investigating assaults on campus.

Outside of the Education Department building, activist Sabrina Stevens speaks to a crowd during the #NeedforIX rally last Thursday. (Lauryn Gutierrez/Rewire)

“We have many reasons to fear that they are not committed to Title IX protection in a way that the last administration was, and we can’t afford to go backwards,” Alexandra Brodsky, co-founder of Know Your IX and a fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, said of DeVos and her staff. Brodsky was in the first group that addressed DeVos, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations and Outreach in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights Candice Jackson, and other aides in a private meeting.

Brodsky, who says Yale University did not properly investigate her sexual assault, told Rewire after the listening session that she worries DeVos will weaken guidelines, adopted in 2011, which say under the federal statute Title IX, universities must consider the “preponderance of the evidence” in sexual assault cases, which is a lower standard than the “clear and convincing” standard many schools were using at the time.

“We talked about the importance of both the legal and cultural role of the department in making clear to schools that they have a responsibility to ensure that through fair procedures and support, survivors can continue to learn, that fair process benefits everyone involved, and that we need a department that is publicly rejecting rapists,” Brodsky told Rewire, adding that DeVos needs to talk to more sexual assault survivors across the country before weakening or revoking the guidelines.

“We really called on the department to hear from more survivors, because it’s not enough just to talk to a handful of people who know D.C. nonprofits and are able to come to D.C.,” Brodsky said.

The day before the DeVos’ listening sessions, Jackson outraged sexual assault advocates after asserting that “90 percent [of campus sexual assault accusations] fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.”

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates that between 2 and 10 percent of rape accusations turn out to be false, according to recent studies.

“If she thinks it’s just that 10 percent, we definitely do worry about policy being made based on rape myths, and we called on the department to base policy on real stories and the experiences and facts of sexual assault in schools and to meet with more students, and to be leaders on this issue, because university leadership takes its cues from the department,” Brodsky said of Jackson, acknowledging that Jackson had apologized but had not walked back her statement.

Vanita Gupta, who headed the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division from 2014 to January 2017 and serves as the president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, spoke at Thursday’s speak-out in front of the Education Department and read a survivor’s story. She told Rewire after the speech that Jackson’s remarks were “callous.” She said the guidance issued by the Obama administration was intended to clarify the Title IX law and ensure that students at schools receiving federal dollars were ensured an education free of discrimination.

Jackson’s comments led many of Thursday’s activists to believe that DeVos and her staff do not believe sexual assault survivors. And DeVos’ meeting with some of the representatives of the accused has contributed to this lack of confidence.

DeVos met with representatives from organizations including the National Coalition for Men Carolinas, Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE).

As Jezebel reported, some of these groups invited to meet with DeVos have a history of misogynistic statements. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has described SAVE as a group that has been “lobbying to roll back services for victims of domestic abuse and penalties for their tormentors, while working to return the focus to the ‘true victims of abuse’—the falsely accused.” ThinkProgress reported that the National Coalition for Men Carolinas has published photos and names of women who say they were raped and have called them “false accusers.”

Jonathon Andrews, a volunteer activist for FACE and SAVE, was among DeVos’ invitees representing the rights of the accused. Andrews told Rewire in a phone interview that he considers himself to be a feminist and a supporter of women’s rights. But he believes the guidelines need to create more explicit civil rights protections for the people accused of assault.

Andrews says he is both a survivor of sexual assault (he says he initially reported the assault on campus but it was not taken seriously) and someone who was later falsely accused of assault (by the person he says assaulted him, a fellow fraternity brother). Andrews told Rewire that Hanover College, in Indiana, expelled him in 2016 without adequately considering his side of the story. He said he filed a complaint with the university, which is considering his claim.

“Mainly we were trying to show [DeVos] all these different stories of how Title IX hasn’t worked,” Andrews said. “I don’t want to see the DCL [referring to the Obama’s Dear Colleague Letter, which outlined the guidelines] go away. I want to see it improved.”

Another of the invited speakers, Cynthia Garrett, an attorney and co-president of FACE, told Rewire before her meeting with DeVos that she doesn’t want to see the guidelines revoked, just tweaked to ensure certain protections for students accused of sexual assault. She said in their interpretations of the Obama administration’s guidelines, many universities have denied due process rights to those accused of sexual assault. FACE has pushed state legislation requiring accused students be granted legal representation when facing university investigations, something Garrett said depends on each university but something she’s hoping will be part of DeVos’ amended rules.

“We are not interested in getting rid of Title IX or denying civil rights to any party in these proceedings. We’re interested in fair process,” Garrett said, noting that she did not agree with Jackson’s statement that 90 percent of sexual assault survivors are lying.

However, Garrett said she believes schools have gone too far in implementing federal guidelines, such as accepting the standard that sexual assault can include a situation where a person withdraws consent during the assault, particularly if that withdrawal is not made clear to the other party.

“When you’re in the middle of intercourse, you’re not going to stop and say, ‘Are you okay with this? Do you want me to keep going?'” Garrett said. “Maybe some people feel that that is realistic, but not in my experiences.”