For years, student activists have been fighting sexual assault both on campus and off. Today, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos served a major blow to the movement. Sejal Singh, Policy Coordinator at the organization Know Your IX broke down what exactly this means, what’s at stake for survivors, and how we can all fight back.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
MTV News: Can you explain what Betsy DeVos did today regarding campus sexual assault?
Sejal Singh: Today the Department of Education rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance regarding campus sexual assault and issued new guidelines that make very clear that the Department of Education doesn’t take survivors’ rights and access to education as seriously as they take their rapists’. It’s pretty disturbing.
Break this down for us: What exactly do these new guidelines do?
Singh: The Department is allowing schools to be excused from the preponderance of evidence standard that is frequently used in civil rights cases. They are lifting the guidelines that schools promptly resolve complaints within 60 days. They are bringing back mediation for cases of sexual assault, essentially telling schools that rather than investigating they should tell survivors to "work it out" [with the accused]. And they’re effectively denying survivors the opportunity to appeal even if they have new evidence.
Before the Obama administration’s guidance was issued, and before the Department of Education enforced it, complaints investigations frequently lasted over a year. … The fact that these schools would drag their feet … often ended up encouraging survivors to drop complaints rather than pursue them or drop out of school entirely.
The Department of Education is [also] going to allow schools to bring [mediation] back with no regulation, guidance, or oversight. That mediation often looks like putting a survivor across the table from her rapist and saying, "forgive each other, apologize and move on." I’ve even spoken to students who tell me that their school’s mediation process involves telling survivors and rapists to pray together and pray for each other. I worry that a lot of survivors will be deterred from reporting at all because their schools will simply put them in a mediation process where they’re put back in a room with the person who assaulted them which is the last thing most survivors want.
What exactly is the Obama-era guidance that DeVos rescinded? What was the legal process surrounding campus sexual assault like before DeVos made this decision?
Singh: Title IX is a 40-year-old federal civil rights law that prohibits gender-based barriers to equal educational access. Because sexual violence is so widespread on college campuses (and high schools), and because it overwhelmingly affects women and LGBTQ students, it constitutes a massive gender-based barrier for equal educational access for obvious reasons. A survivor can’t learn when they're lives in the same dorm as her perpetrator or is in class with somebody who has abused them. That’s why Title IX requires schools to take sexual violence seriously, investigate reports of sexual assault, and make sure survivors have the support they need to continue their education.
But a sophomore in college who is sexually assaulted can’t be expected to go through decades of case law to understand her rights. The Obama administration released the ‘ Dear Colleague’ letter in an attempt to clarify survivors’ rights and schools’ obligations under federal civil rights law. It didn’t create new rights or new obligations for schools — it clarified existing, longstanding obligations under Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, and regulations that were issued by the Bush administration in 2001.
“A sophomore in college who is sexually assaulted can’t be expected to go through decades of case law to understand her rights.”
I know so many young people who would never have graduated, who would never been able to finish their education if it weren’t for the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter. I think all of those people are feeling very betrayed today.
What do you think led DeVos to rescind the letter and issue new interim guidance?
Singh: DeVos herself has said that she wanted to gather comments and input from stakeholders to get the system right. That comment period ended two days ago and there were over a hundred thousand student survivors who submitted comments asking DeVos to leave the guidance in place.
It seems like the Department of Education is not only ignoring comments that have been submitted from students and survivors and parents, but is hypocritically issuing new mandates and interim guidance without public input -- in other words doing precisely the thing they criticized the Obama administration for.
I suspect that a lot of this stems from pressure from University lobbyists. The fact that the Department will no longer ensure that these complaints are inspected in a timely way reflects the concerns held by University lawyers who are primarily interested in avoiding liability, not achieving justice.
What does this mean for survivors on campus right now?
Singh: Title IX is federal law. It still protects survivors on campus. Your school is still obligated to investigate sexual assault and take it seriously, to provide you with interim measures and accommodations, like access to counselling or being moved out of a dorm that you might share with someone who has abused you.
Survivors and students should be holding their schools accountable and demanding that they maintain strong, fair, equitable procedures for both sides. The Department of Education is not requiring schools to adopt mediation or unfair appeals processes or preponderance of evidence standard.
How are activists responding to this development? And how can other young people get involved?
Singh: The Department is conducting a formal comment process to make formal goals and so we’re very much engaging with that to make sure that survivors and students and parents are heard during the process. Most importantly we’re educating survivors about their rights. We’re doing Know Your Rights trainings and putting out Know Your Rights materials so survivors know their schools still have to investigate sexual assault and still have to support them. We’re organizing students on campuses across the country to demand that their schools support and protect them even if the federal government won’t.
We’re also working on state legislation to protect survivors. If the federal government isn’t going to protect survivors, then states can and should step in. For example, California just passed legislation that is headed to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk that codify many protections in the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter into state law.
If you’re a student, you can organize and Know Your IX has a lot of tools to help you organize to make sure your school is standing with survivors and working towards a safe and equitable campuses.