Where is the Justice for Survivors?

(Shirley Zhong • The Student Life)

Last Friday, my phone was blowing up.

That is to say, the New York Times and CNN news alerts were furiously competing for attention on my lockscreen. Another Obamacare repeal bill was on the Congress floor. The nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea had devolved into name-calling. A discriminatory travel ban (part three?) was set to be announced.

Amid the dizzying, dystopic shuffle that has come to define our news cycle, I almost missed the news that Betsy DeVos, a desiccated squirrel that has assumed the post of Secretary of Education, was busy stripping sexual assault survivors of their legal rights.

The rescinded guidelines were part of key campus sexual assault policy enacted by the Obama Administration, in an attempt to push schools to take a harder stance against sexual assault on campuses.

These guidelines demanded that schools use 'preponderance of evidence' as the standard for determining guilt in cases of sexual assault, meaning colleges determine that it is more likely than not that the assault occurred. This is legally the lowest standard of admissible proof, one that is used in civil court rulings, as well as routinely other campus disciplinary procedures.

The Obama-era guidelines, laid down in the 2011 Dear Colleague letter, were widely lauded by activists. After all, why should the standard of proof for sexual assault be any higher than any that of other violations that require disciplinary action from schools?

DeVos’s changes mean that public high schools and colleges can choose to adhere to a higher standard of proof in sexual assault cases – 'clear and convincing evidence' – meaning that the school must determine that it was 'more likely than not' that the crime occurred.

More quietly, she removed the mandate for schools to complete their investigations into sexual assault cases, substituting it for the more vague “reasonably prompt” response. Additionally, she reinstated mediation sessions as a means of conflict resolution. The Obama administration had previously removed this as an option under the pretense that survivors would feel pressure to confront their attackers.

The reality of campus sexual assault is that college campuses can’t afford to wait protracted lengths of time for broken justice systems to convict criminals. DeVos is eager to jump to the aid of the falsely maligned, but what about the one in five women and one in twenty men who will be sexually assaulted during their college years?

The absurdist ‘witch-hunt’ narrative concocted and propagated by the G.O.P. would be laughable if it weren’t half as horrific. The idea that innocent, usually cis male, students are routinely accused by vengeful caricatures of women wronged couldn’t be farther from the truth. Even so, it is one that DeVos and her cronies are eager to spread – one that results in legislation that harms students and creates dangerous ambiguity among school administrators as to how they should handle sexual assault cases.

Even though Obama-era Title IX changes have already been codified into California state law, the impacts of DeVos’s prioritization are far-reaching.  

DeVos wields enormous power to interpret and remove our constitutional protections. The fact that one of her first major acts as Secretary of Education is to strip sexual assault survivors of rights doesn’t bode well for survivors. She has made it very clear who she stands with; if her malicious and intentional battle against civil rights is lost amid the chaos of the Trumpian news cycle, it is the most vulnerable among us who stand to lose the most.