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Advocacy groups react after Title IX summit with Betsy DeVos

Where does President Trump’s secretary of education stand on campus rape?

That question was in the air as U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent Thursday in meetings about Title IX — specifically as it applies to sexual assault on campus.

DeVos met with three different groups separately: advocacy groups and survivors of sexual assault, men’s rights groups and students falsely accused of sexual assault, and university administrators and Title IX coordinators.

“There are some things that are working. There are many things that are not working well,” DeVos said in in a Q & A session with reporters after the meetings. “We need to get this right.”

Title IX, a law created to prohibit sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funding, has been on the books for 45 years. In 2011, the Obama administration released a “Dear Colleague Letter” to public universities asserting that “Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX.”

The focus of the DeVos summit was what responsibilities colleges and universities have under Title IX to investigate cases of sexual violence that occur on their campuses, in the wake of that Obama directive, and how those investigations should proceed.

On the eve of the summit, Candice Jackson, the top civil rights official at the Department of Education, came under fire for comments dismissing “90%” of sexual assault accusations as regretted hookups. She later apologized for the remarks as “flippant.”

And DeVos herself has been criticized by sexual assault advocates and survivors for being hesitant about upholding the Obama guidance. In her confirmation hearing in January, she said she planned to continue looking into the issue with respect to “the victim, the rights of the victims, as well as those who are accused.”

Advocacy groups including End Rape On Campus (EROC), the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and SurvJustice brought student sexual assault survivors with them. They were given time to tell their stories to DeVos and Jackson, who opened that meeting by walking back her comments about rape accusers.

“She reassured people that she herself is a survivor — these are her words — and didn’t have the courage to report,” SurvJustice founder and executive director Laura Dunn says. Though Dunn says she and and others in the room appreciated the apology, they still found the comments questioning rape reports cast a pall over the conversation. “I would say it was fairly quiet even with that apology,” she says.

Still, participants were glad for the opportunity to meet with DeVos and Jackson. “Yesterday was the very first time since she became the Secretary of Education that she has met with survivors of violence,” EROC managing director Jess Davidson told USA TODAY College. “And considering that they’re the group that’s most impacted by this issue, I think it’s critical that she continues to meet with them before making any decision.”

Still, Davidson pushed back on the decision to give equal time to rape survivor advocates and the falsely accused. “While false reports of sexual assault do happen, they happen only between two and eight percent of the time,” she says, citing FBI reports. “I think it’s important for all stakeholders in any policy situation to be listened to, but a disproportionate amount of time was given to the falsely accused compared to how often it happens.”

Indeed, the National Coalition For Men Carolinas (NCFMC), a men’s rights organization, represented the falsely accused in the second set of meetings, along with students who shared stories of being wrongfully accused of sexual assault at their schools.

“Several students shared painful, often emotional accounts of how they were victimized under policies” set forth by the Obama guidance letter, which “ordered universities to lower the standard of proof used in adjudicating Title IX cases to a ‘preponderance of evidence’ instead of the ‘clear and convincing’ standard that many schools previously had in place,” NCFMC said in a press release.

The organization cited “170 lawsuits filed against universities in which plaintiffs allege being denied due process.”

NCFMC holds that the criminal justice system, not universities, should investigate sexual assault cases, arguing that not allowing attorneys to participate in university Title IX hearings deprives the accused of their constitutional rights.

In the final meeting with university administrators and Title IX coordinators, some said they didn’t want the Obama guidance revoked and that they only wanted further clarification of their responsibilities, according to Alexandra Brodsky, a Skadden fellow at the NWLC and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

After the meeting, DeVos told reporters, “”It was an emotionally draining day. … I saw a lot of pain today.”

It isn’t yet clear how the Department of Education will enforce Title IX with respect to sexual assault on campus under DeVos.

Brodsky hopes DeVos will continue listening to survivors. “DeVos really needs to go to where they are. She needs to travel to schools and to campuses to hear directly from students who have a wide range of experiences and needs of survivors before she makes a critical, high-stakes decision,” Brodsky says.

Brodsky hopes the assault survivors’ stories will leave an impact that will translate into policy.

“I think the stories that were shared were very powerful, and I don’t know how someone could leave that meeting without recognizing the urgency of enforcing Title IX protections for survivors,” Brodsky says. “With that being said, the secretary and acting assistant secretary refused to commit to specific steps forward and what matters is what happens next. It doesn’t matter if you’re nice to survivors in a meeting if you betray them in policy.”

Outside the meetings, student activists and others read stories of sexual assault survivors submitted from all over the country, and then gave a binder of those stories to Secretary DeVos during the meeting.

“It was a powerful action to show that there were so many voices that were not being heard in that meeting,” Davidson, the EROC managing director, says. “So many that we had to gather outside the department for three hours in 100-degree weather to read those stories — and it still does not even begin to cover the breadth of experiences of survivors.”

It’s unclear how DeVos will proceed, she said. “The only thing that we know for certain is that she said she will continue to meet with survivors of sexual violence, and I think that’s an incredibly important start.”

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