Before the year 1972, women could be denied admission to a university simply for being a woman. In those days, colleges could force victims of sexual assault to continue sharing a classroom with their abuser without penalty.
That’s why, almost 50 years ago, Congress enacted the Education Amendments Act — leading the U.S. Department of Education to enforce Title IX. It remains the first and only civil-rights law to prohibit sex discrimination in schools. And while we’ve made tremendous progress in certain areas — women now make up more than half of all college students in the United States — sexual harassment and assault have remained a heinous epidemic in our schools.
More than one in five women are sexually assaulted in college. As we have heard from so many brave survivors who have shared their stories in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the trauma that many of these victims experience remains with them for the rest of their lives. Sadly, one-third of student sexual-assault survivors drop out of school.
Despite the need for systemic changes to address sexual assault on college campuses, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos instead has proposed to roll back crucial protections for survivors. This complete abdication of the Education Department’s basic responsibilities would have disastrous consequences.
Rather than protecting students, the proposal would widen loopholes for assailants. It would allow students who commit sexual assault just a few blocks off campus to face no consequences. And under the DeVos proposal, schools would not need to investigate an incident unless they have “direct” knowledge of it.
Yet recent failures, such as the decades-long abuse by Larry Nassar — the former, and now convicted, USA Gymnastics team doctor at Michigan State University — have made it clear that we cannot allow schools to simply sweep sexual abuse under the rug.
The stigma and trauma survivors face can sometimes be overwhelming. Just 12 percent of college survivors report their assault. However, under this proposal, schools would only be required to investigate complaints made to the select few individuals on campus with the “authority to institute corrective measures.” A report to a trusted mentor, teacher or coach could suddenly be rendered useless.
DeVos says that the changes would allow schools to close Title IX investigations quicker. But we should not prioritize speed over student safety. Alarmingly, the Department of Education is attempting to so narrowly redefine the term “sexual harassment” that many pending cases could be deemed “not severe enough.” And the proposal would open up victims of sexual harassment to cross-examination – potentially re-traumatizing students and making it less likely that survivors will come forward. That means students who may be too afraid to come to class or seek the tutoring they need could be left in the shadows.
DeVos would also force survivors to bear a greater burden of proof when they come forward — making it far too easy to get away with committing sexual assault. This would disproportionately penalize women of color, who are often ignored when they report abuse. LGBTQ students, who suffer disproportionately from sexual assault, would be far worse off under this new policy. College campuses must be places where all students feel safe and where all victims know they will be heard.
It’s infuriating that the Department of Education is seeking to adopt a dangerous and senseless sexual harassment policy that ignores the rights of survivors. Only perpetrators of sexual assault benefit from returning to a time when students were stigmatized and punished for coming forward.
No student should feel scared to walk the hallways or campus of their school. No student should be afraid to confide in a teacher after experiencing an assault. And no school should be able to close the door on a survivor who has bravely spoken out.
In the midst of #MeToo, survivors of sexual assault and harassment are struggling to be heard and to be believed. We must not turn our backs on them. Title IX exists to prevent that from happening, yet DeVos proposes to short-circuit justice.
Survivors deserve justice. And it is our job as public servants to do all we can to elevate their voices — not to silence them.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz represents Florida’s District 23 in Congress. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, elected to Congress in November, will represent districts 26 and 27 respectively.