Politico’s misleading article on Betsy DeVos and campus sexual assault
Politico has published an article attempting to make Donald Trump’s pick for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, look like she’s against victims of campus sexual assault.
The very first sentence of the article, written by Benjamin Wermund, makes this bias clear: “Education secretary pick Betsy DeVos has given thousands of dollars to an advocacy group that wants to raise the burden of proof for campus sexual assault victims.”
Right off the bat, Wermund is referring to accusers as “victims,” a common tactic for activists who want people to believe that no one would ever lie about sexual assault. Colleges and universities (and lawmakers like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand) do this too. By calling accusers “victims,” activists can make it seem like it is already a fact that they have been sexually assaulted, and therefore any attempt to advocate for due process rights or an investigation makes someone anti-victim.
This, of course, is not true. Advocacy groups like the one mentioned in the Politico article are very much anti-rape, but feel that school administrators, activists, lawmaker and the media have devalued the heinous crime of sexual assault by broadening the definition and making it incredibly easy for colleges to expel someone and brand them a rapist based merely on an accusation. Due-process advocates simply want to make sure that the constitutional rights of accused students are guaranteed.
That’s just the first sentence. The main problem with the article is that it offers no proof whatsoever that DeVos wants to raise the burden of proof for colleges and universities adjudicating sexual assault (the fact that colleges are handling such felonies is a problem in itself). Wermund makes that clear in his article in the fifth paragraph.
“It’s unclear where DeVos, who may soon lead the agency, stands on this crucial question – she has said very little about higher education in general over the years, and has not publicly said anything about campus sexual assault. DeVos has been primarily active on K-12 education issues,” Wermund wrote.
The issue in question is donations DeVos made to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization dedicated to, well, individual rights in education. These include due process and free speech. When it comes to these issues, FIRE takes no political position – it has defended students who opposed liberal policies who have been punished for their views and liberals who have also been targeted. It has defended any student who has been denied due process when accused of sexual assault.
There’s no proof that DeVos’ donations (which came from a foundation DeVos runs with her husband) went to FIRE because of their advocacy for due process. DeVos’ foundation made two separate, $5,000 donations to FIRE – one in 2012 and one in 2013. The Education Department ramped up its focus on campus sexual assault in 2011 when it issued a “Dear Colleague” letter that lowered the standard of proof colleges were required to use when adjudicating sexual assault. But as I noted above, FIRE also advocates for other campus rights.
As Politico admits, the two donations from DeVos paled in comparison to DeVos and her husband’s other donations.
FIRE has been advocating for due process rights for accused students, and has been critical of the Education Department’s lowered standard of proof. Previously, colleges could choose their own standard. Many chose a “clear and convincing standard,” which is still lower than the criminal “beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” but meant that colleges had to be pretty darn sure a student was a rapist before branding him as such.
Many other schools used the “preponderance of evidence” standard, which required schools to be only 50.01 percent sure an accuser was telling the truth. Given the media, activist and lawmaker (including the vice president of the United States) focus on the issue, the culture surrounding accusations made it incredibly easy to find in favor of accusers. Accused students have been given little chance to defend themselves.
The culture is against them, the loudest voices on the issue are against them, and the Education Department’s “Dear Colleague” letter made it clear that effective due process was seen as a detriment to justice, as the letter suggested schools don’t allow students to cross-examine each other, as it could “re-traumatize” accusers.
This again made it clear where schools should stand; Believe accusers. Therefore, anything that might poke holes in their story should be ignored.
FIRE is currently suing the federal government on behalf of a student who says his due process rights were violated after he was accused of sexual assault. Politico notes this lawsuit, but fails to acknowledge that it was filed in 2016 – at least three years after DeVos’ last donation to FIRE.
Lies, damn lies and statistics
Before noting there’s no proof DeVos supports raising the standard, Wermund provides comments from a women’s group and a Democratic senator who are allowed to attack her for her donations. Lisa Maatz, a spokeswoman for the American Association of University Women, called DeVos’ donations a “red flag.”
Maatz’s organization, however, has its own problems on the issue. The AAUW routinely uses flawed and misleading studies to insist that campus sexual assault is rampant in the U.S. The group points to self-reported surveys that claim one-in-five women say they’re the victim of sexual assault.
In reality, these surveys do no such thing. Sexual assault is defined broadly in the surveys (it includes everything from a stolen kiss to forcible rape) so as to get more respondents to answer in the affirmative.
But the studies don’t ask whether respondents have been sexually assaulted. Instead, the researchers (who often have an agenda to prove women are constant victims) determine that certain responses equal sexual assault. When respondents are asked why they didn’t report conduct the researchers claim is sexual assault, more than 70 percent say it was because they didn’t think the conduct was serious enough to report.
Another problem with the AAUW is its disgust that 91 percent of colleges reported zero rapes in 2014. Call me crazy, but I always thought that fewer rapes were a good thing. The AAUW, however, suggests that such a low number of reports couldn’t possibly be a result of campus sexual assault not being the epidemic media, activists and lawmakers make it out to be, but because schools are doing something to make women afraid to report.
Sure, that could be the reason in some cases, but when celebrities, journalists, school administrators and even the vice president and a former presidential candidate are broadcasting that accusers must be believed no matter what, it’s hard to imagine that fear is still a big factor in reporting – especially to sympathetic college administrators.
Wermund reports that “multiple studies have shown that 5 percent of college women are victims of rape or attempted rape every year.” This might be more accurate than the one-in-five (or 20 percent) figure Maatz and others like to use, so I’ll give Wermund this one, unless this is a typo.
Wermund also mentions a letter from Democratic Sens. Bob Casey and Patty Murray, who urged Trump to keep the preponderance standard, citing its use in civil rights cases. What these senators ignore and what Wermund fails to report is that the preponderance standard is the only thing colleges are taking from civil court. Defendants in civil court have other rights, including the right to be represented by an attorney, discovery and cross-examination. Also, testimony in civil court is provided under oath. None of these are provided to accused college students.
I do hope DeVos looks at the legality of the Education Department’s “Dear Colleague” letter. It did not go through the necessary notice-and-comment period even though it outlined new requirements for colleges and universities that amounted to new regulations. The department had no statutory or regulatory justification for requiring the preponderance standard; saying they were allowed to make the requirement because many schools already used the standard isn’t justification. They could just as easily have used the same argument to require schools to use the clear and convincing standard. That would have been equally unjustified.
It should also be noted that even if DeVos instructs the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (which oversees Title IX complaints and issued the “Dear Colleague” guidance), it doesn’t mean that she is somehow pro-rape. Rape is a heinous crime, and must be treated as such. We should not be branding college students rapists because it is politically correct; we must be absolutely sure that we are damaging the lives of actual rapists.