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Betsy DeVos Could Be A Disaster For The Campus Sexual Assault Movement

Sofie Karasek, director of education and co-founder of the organization End Rape On Campus, tells us what's at stake

Every single Senate Democrat was so certain that Betsy DeVos is dangerously unfit to be this nation’s secretary of education that they argued against her confirmation into the early hours of Tuesday morning. But thanks to Vice-President Mike Pence’s historic tie-breaking vote, a woman who has no personal experience with public education and who cited defense against the potential threat of grizzly bears as the primary reason for allowing guns in schools was confirmed as our secretary of education yesterday.

The list of ways in which DeVos is unqualified is as extensive as it is horrifying to many Americans, from her hostility toward LGBTQ students to her family’s “financial entanglements” with the Republican Party (to the tune of around $200 million in donations). But one of the less-discussed threats she poses to the safety, rights, and well-being of students is the damage she could cause to the campus sexual assault movement.

I talked to Sofie Karasek, director of education and co-founder of the organization End Rape On Campus, about what exactly DeVos’s appointment means for survivors and activists in their fight for justice.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

MTV News: While many are just learning about DeVos, End Rape On Campus has been protesting her nomination for weeks now through #DearBetsy, its joint campaign with Know Your IX. Can you tell me about that campaign? Why did you decide to start it and what have you seen emerge from it?

Sofie Karasek: We started the #DearBetsy campaign to draw attention to the importance of keeping students safe on campus from discrimination and sexual violence. There was a lot of uncertainty with regard to where Betsy DeVos stood on this issue and we wanted her to be pressured in advance of her hearing to commit to testing and enforcing Title IX, which is the main gender equity statute that we have relied on over the past few years.

[The hashtag] has reached over 2 million people and there were over 2,000 tweets from people in support of maintaining Title IX enforcement. It really showed that there’s a lot of public support for keeping this vigorous enforcement on the books. We’ll be continuing to use it to share survivors’ stories and put pressure on Ms. DeVos.

Campus sexual assault activists have identified DeVos’s refusal to uphold the 2011 Title IX Guidance that has been crucial to their ability to effectively address this issue as one of the major issues with her confirmation. Can you describe the threat DeVos poses to that guidance and how that will in turn impact the campus sexual assault movement?

Karasek: For a number of years, survivors have been able to use Title IX to hold their institutions accountable for mishandling sexual violence cases. But it’s really been over the last five years in particular that the federal government has exhibited such a commitment as well to keeping students safe. So there’s been a lot of talk about what would happen if this guidance, which is issued by the Department of Education to colleges and universities as to how to handle sexual assault cases, were to be revoked.

Further, [DeVos] said that she wasn’t ready to commit to upholding this guidance. This doesn’t bode well for us, because this guidance is such a basic thing — something that shouldn’t be a question. [This guidance] makes it easier for schools by clarifying what their obligations are and also insures that survivors have easily accessible information about what their rights are.

Part of why Title IX is so important is because it’s not just this pie-in-the-sky piece of legislation, but rather provides direct accommodations to students on the ground — like if you need a classroom change, or dormitory shift, or you’re trying to go to the library at hours when your perpetrator is going to be there. Those are all going to be things students depend on and are guaranteed under Title IX, so being able to have a person at the helm of the education department that recognizes that is really important in terms of enforcement.

Beyond her refusal to support Title IX, are there other ways you see DeVos's confirmation affecting campus sexual assault activism? For example, many activists point to the importance of comprehensive, consent-focused sex education to eradicating sexual assault — something that will likely wither under DeVos.

Karasek: That is definitely a concern of ours as well. We have advocated for healthy relationship education in particular. We don’t think it should be a partisan issue ... knowing that you have to ask your partner for consent is extremely important regardless of what particular situation you might be in. There certainly is a fear that these kind of preventative efforts that would be so effective would not be championed [under DeVos], but we currently don’t have a national standard for sex education, so it’s not necessarily that we would have something roll back but that we would continue to be in the situation we’re currently in. But of course that puts students at risk.

LGBTQ individuals already face disproportionate rates of sexual assault as well as unique barriers to coming out and finding support as survivors. How do you think these survivors will fare under DeVos, whose family has a history of funding anti-LGBTQ groups and who failed to confirm she would protect LGBTQ students?

Karasek: We definitely have been hearing a lot about the DeVos family funding anti-LGBTQ organizations. Given that queer students experience some of the highest levels of sexual violence and also are disproportionately targeted for bullying and other types of harassment, it’s worrying to us if there’s someone at the helm of the department that doesn’t believe that those are real threats to students.

One of the main pieces of guidance that was issued by the Department of Education clarifies that Title IX protection against gender discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Basically, students who are targeted for their perceived or actual gender expression or gender identity can also have access to accommodations and the ability to have investigations and other rights that students have under Title IX. So we have advocated that the next secretary keep the guidance on the books that clarifies that Title IX applies to students regardless of gender identity.

How do you think sexual assault activists might start to think about their activism (i.e., tactics, message, etc.) differently in this broader political climate as well as specifically under DeVos?

Karasek: We’re thinking about how to continue this conversation in ways that move us forward and that can definitely involve more cultural aspects — like trying to work with movie producers and TV screenwriters. That kind of thing has been an interest of ours for a long time. But certainly I think that it will depend on what happens in the months to come, in terms of whether enforcement is going to be scaled back or whether there is going to be a cutback in the Office of Civil Rights, which investigates Title IX cases. For the time being, we’re continuing to move this conversation forward.

What can campus activists do to make a difference in their communities despite these political and/or potential legal constraints?

Karasek: One of the things Betsy DeVos said during her confirmation hearing that was concerning to us was that she wanted to learn more about the problem of campus sexual assault from institutions of higher education. She didn’t say that she wanted to hear from survivors, but from the educational institutions. As I said, the thing that’s in the best interest of universities is to keep the guidance on the books because that makes it less likely that they’ll be opened up to liability.

In terms of what campus activists can do, I would pressure your schools to say publicly that they’re going to continue to basically operate as though the guidance is on the books regardless of whether or not it’s revoked. People can pressure their colleges to do that through op-eds for their student newspaper, through petition drives. There will be more state-level advocacy efforts as well that I would encourage folks to check out and get involved in, in terms of things that will be moving closer to home.

Are there any other points you want to raise about DeVos’s confirmation? Anything else readers should be aware of?

Karasek: A concern of ours that we raised during the campaign is that DeVos has a lot of ties to religious institutions and may try to push for schools to try to become exempt from federal anti-discrimination statutes as religious institutions. There is currently a list of schools that have requested exemptions from Title IX for religious reasons and that have been able to get permission from the federal government to discriminate against their own students. So there are two things that are concerning to us: The first is that she would grant many more of those kinds of waivers to institutions and enable more places to discriminate against their students. But then also that parents and students and the public benefit from the knowledge that an institution has gotten or requested a waiver from Title IX. We want to make sure that going forward that list continues to remain public.

There’s also a list of Title IX investigations that are currently open at colleges across the country. That has been a great way to pressure schools to reform, too, especially because these investigations take years ... But this list has been a measure of transparency. It enables people to say “there was a complaint made against this institution, it could be something going on there, let’s pressure them to reform in particular ways by looking over their policy and seeing how students feel on that particular campus.” It’s been a tool of empowerment for students to know that what happened to them was not OK — having validation from another person or another agency that what’s happened to you should not be taken lightly. [DeVos] has not committed to keeping that list updated or continuing to publish it, either.

How is End Rape On Campus specifically thinking about moving forward?

Karasek: I think that we are definitely going to try to work more with institutions of higher education since that seems to be what matters most to her: listening to them. I think we’ve developed a lot of great partnerships with administrators around the country over the last couple of years. So I think we will be working toward building a broader coalition of people saying “Hey — this progress is really important and should not be rolled back.”