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Roundtable: Why College Students Are ‘Terrified’ Of Betsy DeVos

‘I worry that this is the first hurdle in what will be a long four years for women’

In a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice-President Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education last week. The choice was controversial due not only to her lack of experience when it comes to politics and public school systems, but also, as campus sexual assault activists have noted, to her refusal to confirm that she would uphold Title IX. Campus sexual assault activists and educators alike are concerned that a Trump administration — especially one including DeVos — could undo the important work done to combat sexual violence on campus using Title IX legislation.

We opened the conversation to MTV's own campus ambassadors to explore what campus sexual assault activism currently looks like at their schools, what still needs to be addressed, and what worries them most about DeVos's new role.

Taylor Vidmar, Richland Community College

As a student who’s been in public schools for her entire education (and still attends a public college), I’m terrified that Betsy DeVos is our secretary of education. It is so frustrating to see someone who has virtually no experience with public education in any way, shape, or form — and who actually has opposed public education — have oversight over every public school in the country. Friendly reminder: 90 percent of students go to public schools.

DeVos’s failure to commit to protecting Title IX and her failure to stand up for campus sexual assault victims also concerns me. There is a clear need for this work: The documentary The Hunting Ground is a great exposé of how many colleges and universities have failed to investigate rape accusations in order to apparently maintain their image. Because my campus is so small, there’s a definite lack of campus sexual assault activism. Aside from a short talk at student orientation from campus security about reporting sexual assault and/or abuse, there really wasn’t any serious education about consent, sexual assault, or Title IX. I think campuses should require courses covering topics like consent as well as the resources and support systems at their campuses that students can turn to when in need. But students can work to help prevent rape from occurring on their campus by holding their college accountable for not taking the necessary steps to stop the cycle of campus sexual assault. We must urge our administrations to stop mishandling assault cases and to actually punish those who’ve committed sexual assault.

Emily Tantuccio, Rutgers University

I took a class at Rutgers last spring called "Special Topics: Sexual Communication." I went into it not really sure of what to expect, and maybe even a little nervous, but it ended up being one of the most eye-opening classes I took during my college career. The curriculum covered everything from LGBTQ relationships and norms, to how to discuss consent and happiness with a partner, to ways to identify abusive behaviors early on in a relationship, to facts about sexual assault on college campuses. It was a smaller class, which forced a lot of us to participate more often and created a sense of accountability (as opposed to being in a huge lecture hall where you can get away with sleeping in the back row and nobody says anything). It opened up some very insightful dialogue, and we got into topics that may have been uncomfortable to discuss but were definitely vital to increasing everyone’s understanding of rape culture, sexual health, etc. When we watched The Hunting Ground toward the end of the course, a lot of the guys in the class seemed shocked about some of the statistics and information shared, but also said they were more motivated to educate others about it going forward. I was really happy with my experiences in that class. I hope they continue to offer it at Rutgers going forward, and think that if it was replicated at other colleges, it could really have a positive impact for a lot of students.

Another amazing facet of sexual assault activism (and campus safety in general) at Rutgers is an on-demand buddy system program we have called SafeHalo, which was launched by a senior in our business school named Daniel Reji. All students have to do is text SafeHalo, and two SafeHalo members will come to wherever they are to walk them back to their house or dorm. To sign up, students leave their info at wearesafehalo.com, and then they get a response with contact information about how to reach out when they feel they’d like members of the team to come escort them home. In this interview with one of our campus publications, Daniel said he realized our issue wasn’t increased campus security as much as it was a lack of a way for students to access safety resources that wouldn’t make them feel judged or scrutinized by authority figures. I think that they’re slowly launching SafeHalo at some other universities throughout the United States. I hope it’ll eventually launch at every college.

Regardless of what Betsy DeVos wants to deny and hide from, campus sexual assault is an epidemic that is only going to continue to get worse if we do not actively acknowledge it and fight against it. As nerve-racking as her appointment is, I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like to be part of a community that refuses to back down from addressing these issues. I have faith that we will continue to make progress as long as we all continue to stand up for what’s right.

Isabel Song, UC Berkeley

I think a lot of us at UC Berkeley get a crash course on sexual assault, consent, and resources for survivors of sexual assault when we come to school, from the mandatory online module and in-person orientation for freshmen to overall student awareness and dialogue. Students have also really empowered each other to make sure that this is something we talk about as a university. That said, UC Berkeley is one of the biggest examples of why we need to be vigilant in making sure we protect survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

Just last September, a UC Berkeley professor accused of sexual harassment sued not only the UC Board of Regents on the basis of discrimination, but also the three women who filed complaints against him. Two of these women were graduate students who filed complaints through our school’s Title IX office, and one was a former undergraduate student who then came forward as well. Reading the accounts of the lack of transparency, how slowly the university responded to the complaints, and how this student felt powerless and pressured by the professor to not go to the administration is sickening. The fact that this professor is only on paid leave is sickening. It’s sickening to realize that my own university is a glaring example of how colleges are failing their students, and drives home why we need timely investigations, stronger enforcements of Title IX, and more support for survivors who have spoken out and those who are afraid to because of the consequences. We need to empower survivors by offering them the protections that Title IX ensures, such as confidential reporting.

Title IX is a very important step toward protecting survivors of sexual violence and ensuring accountability, and it can’t end here. But I am afraid that Betsy DeVos is going to turn back the clock on Title IX and strip college students everywhere of the essential protections it provides, particularly given her family’s involvement with FIRE, an organization that is far more interested in protecting the accused than the survivors. As the case of the professor who retaliated against the three women who stood up against him demonstrates, survivors need protection and better representation. The accused have the upper hand. They hold the power. Yes, due process is important, but Title IX helps level the playing field for survivors and helps make sure that complaints of sexual assault and harassment are taken seriously. We need to be empowering survivors, but I believe that Betsy DeVos will instead continue to prioritize the representation of the accused rather than the survivors, thereby harming countless students along the way.

Sara Li, University of Kansas

To say that I have strong feelings about this subject might be an understatement. I started the organization Project Consent roughly three years ago to tackle sexual assault across the world. Since launching, we’ve worked with many college campuses and even with the White House's “It’s On Us” campaign, which aimed to combat sexual assault in universities. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Most college campuses lack the resources necessary to aid victims. Victims either lack awareness of what is available to them, or they just have an insufficient support system, period. This is why Title IX is so vital and why I’m so dismayed that DeVos hasn’t committed to upholding it. Title IX holds universities accountable for their actions and forces the administration to take action against violence on campus.

2. Consent education that begins in college is too late. I’m sorry, it is. We need to start teaching children about consent long before they reach college. While I appreciate the efforts of universities trying to educate their students about consent via online quizzes, we should be talking about what is and isn’t appropriate back in elementary and middle school.

3. Sexual assault isn’t a political issue and there’s no reason why we should treat it like one. Regardless of whose administration it is, sexual assault remains a serious issue that needs to be addressed on all fronts.

Kamrin Baker, University of Nebraska-Omaha

As a woman and a college student, I have obvious and understandable concerns about campus sexual violence and assault. My university has a lot of programs that aim to combat sexual assault head-on, but I completely agree that college intervention is way too late. As with so many other issues — like mental health, gender equality, and LGBTQ alliances — we must begin teaching children sooner.

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation is a clear indicator that these things will not be addressed in the way that they should. Her lack of knowledge and utter disrespect for marginalized individuals and our public school communities is abhorrent and must be fought in every possible way. As Taylor mentioned, this “victory” for the GOP only makes me want to fight harder, wear my "I <3 Public Schools" tee more often, and, as a member of a public education community, continue to make my voice heard.

Bizzy Emerson, University of Missouri

I feel rather grateful to go to Mizzou, where many of my professors and other university officials are Title IX officers, and are prepared to support and comfort students in crisis. That being said, I do think there is a lot of work to be done. Although the Title IX office is available, I still worry that students aren’t as educated about sexual assault as they should be. I think the line is still blurred, especially surrounding party culture, on what is rape and what isn’t. I also think there needs to be an emphasis on educating boys to not rape rather than on women to “not get raped,” which is why I thought Joe Biden’s development of the "It’s On Us" initiative to end sexual assault on college campuses was so important.

The notion that universities should have complete autonomy to dictate how sexual assault and preventative education are handled is ridiculous. The government should provide sufficient funding, as well as implement policy that makes preventing sexual assault a priority and sets a precedent for college campuses to follow.

Losing government support for Title IX under Betsy DeVos quite honestly terrifies me. I worry that this is the first hurdle in what will be a long four years for women under Trump’s presidency. But this also encourages me to be a voice for women who have more to fear and more to lose than I do.