During the Obama Administration, Vice President Joe Biden made it part of his personal agenda to try to tackle what has become an epidemic of sexual assault cases occurring in post-secondary education. In 2011, the Obama Administration issued what was referred to as “Dear Colleague Letters”– letters to universities outlining how these institutes should process sexual assault cases. While these letters were treated as law by the Department of Education, they did not pass through Congress. These letters became a symbol of government support for victims of sexual assault, victims of an unjust system that has disproportionately hurts those affected by sexual assault. According to the Department of Justice only 18% of rape cases result in a conviction.
Since these letters are not law, the new administration threw much of the content of these letters out the window. Current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently gave a speech about Title IX, indicating a rollback of previous protections. Passed in 1972, Title IX guarantees that federally funded institutions may not discriminate on the basis of sex. While Title IX does not explicitly mention sexual assault cases, court rulings since have come to encompass this grey area to affirm institutions have an obligation to aid students in these circumstances.
DeVos’s agenda includes rescinding Obama era protections that were not passed into law, and instead go down the legal road to pass similar statues. DeVos will enact “a transparent notice-and-comment” process in which comments from the public are compiled and eventually put forth into federal law. This process takes time, and whatever law results, even if it is identical to Obama era protections, it will not go into effect for a considerable amount of time. Therefore, it is illogical to take back these protections in the meantime if DeVos plans on enacting similar laws in the future. While the correct legal process should be followed, this slow bureaucratic process eventually hurts college students more than it will help.
Credit should be given to where it is due, and I commend DeVos for stating: “We must continue to condemn the scourge of sexual misconduct on our campuses. We can do a better job of making sure the handling of complaints is fair and accurate.”
In February of this year, the Trump Administration issued their own letter to the Department of Education, rolling back Obama era protection for transgender students to use the bathroom of choice. This issue has now become an issue for the courts as the ACLU sued Gloucester County School Board on behalf of Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen who was no longer allowed to use communal boy’s restrooms, but forced to use private facilities. The Supreme Court eventually sent the case back down to the fourth circuit of appeals, and a definite legal ruling as to whether Title IX protects bathroom rights has yet to be decided.
This isn’t what Title IX should be about. Title IX is an Education amendment that was created to make learning environments more inclusive and safe for every American. Now it has been swept up into legal battles tangled in technicalities. While “rule by letters” is a weak solutions to enforcing equal practices, it does hold merit. In the case of civil rights and basic safety, students don’t have the time to wait for a law to pass when everyday on a college campus can feel like a war zone.
Betsy DeVos needs to put her words into action. If she truly cares about guaranteeing a safe learning environment for every American, devoid of harassment and discrimination, then she must act efficiently and decisively, but most of all, sooner rather than later.