Gender and Sexuality Column

Thompson: The worst part of Betsy DeVos being education secretary is her non-commitment to preventing college sexual assault

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Syracuse University students march in the annual Take Back the Night protest, which aims to raise awareness about sexual assault on college campuses.

As the United States’ new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos will be tasked with cleaning up the messes in the country’s schooling systems. But DeVos, whose confirmation has faced much criticism, doesn’t seem to think the biggest mess — the college sexual assault epidemic — is a mess at all.

DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor who believes the real plight of public education is grizzly bears finding their way into schools, was denounced by left-leaning politicians and the general public for her inexperience. Since her name first surfaced in November as President Donald Trump’s nominee, DeVos has brought forward a slew of proposals to funnel taxpayer money into private schooling, charter school vouchers, financial aid and student loans.

The most concerning of DeVos’s qualities, though, is her stance on civil rights on college campuses and upholding the 2011 Title IX guidance that strengthened the law’s threshold on higher education. When DeVos was pressed on her thoughts on the issue at a January confirmation hearing, she responded with a noncommittal answer.

Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) asked DeVos whether she would continue to uphold Title IX — which prohibits gender-based discrimination under any education program or activity that receives financial assistance from the federal government — to fight sexual assault on college campuses. DeVos answered, “It would be premature for me to do that today,” according to The Washington Post.

With nearly 300 colleges and universities in the U.S. under investigation by the federal government for mishandlings of sexual assault cases, the government can no longer feign ignorance to this growing epidemic. A Title IX investigation was opened at Syracuse University in June 2016 when a former student filed a complaint that the university did not “respond promptly or equitably” to a report of sexual assault.

The Office of Civil Rights opened another investigation into the university in January, when a graduate student filed a complaint alleging she was subjected to a hostile work environment in her academic department. The investigation was closed after the graduate student withdrew the complaint.

And while studies have shown that sexual assault awareness has increased, no studies have been able to conclude a correlation between increased awareness and heightened safety provisions.

Combined with Trump’s controversial and downright derogatory stances on women’s rights and liberties, his promotion of DeVos to head the Office of Civil Rights is a slap in the face to victims of sexual assault across our country’s education system.

Kal Alston, a professor of cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University and former senior administrator, said the rise of university sexual assault is a crisis that can’t go ignored.

“While Title IX is not just about sexual assaults on college campuses, it’s a fundamental concern among university students that needs to be addressed by Trump’s administration,” Alston said.

But instead of being someone who will advocate for victims of sexual assault, DeVos is someone who has donated thousands of dollars to an advocacy group actively striving to overturn an Obama administration policy that would simplify disciplining college students accused of sexual harassment or assault, according to Politico. If the group, called the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, succeeded in its overturn of the policy, it would make it more difficult for college students to file assault and rape charges.

DeVos’s Harry Potter doppelganger, High Inquisitor of Hogwarts Dolores Umbridge, may have gotten one thing right: “Things at Hogwarts are far worse than I feared.”

Kelsey Thompson is a sophomore magazine journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at katho101@syr.edu.

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