The Severe, Pervasive, and Objectively Offensive Tenure of Betsy DeVos

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released the long-awaited new Title IX rule. The two thousand page rule, broadly speaking, offers more protections for the accused party in sexual assault and harassment cases and allows universities to take as little responsibility for these cases as possible. Before delving into the latest garbage from DeVos’ Department of Education, let’s take a moment to reflect on her tenure so far.

During her confirmation hearing, the ex-chair of the Michigan Republican Party, who has no experience in education whatsoever, was caught unable to answer basic questions about education policy. In addition to being oblivious to current federal education law and the basics of evaluating students, she earned herself a late-night clowning when she famously suggested that guns should be allowed in schools to defend against “potential grizzlies.” Nonetheless, Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in a 12-11 party-line vote.

From her confirmation to the present day, Betsy DeVos has been the subject of ire from public education advocates. She has drawn widespread criticism for a myriad of reasons, one of the most pertinent being her crusade for charter schools and voucher programs for private schools. Over the past 25 years, she has used her political clout and vast wealth to fuel the rapid expansion of charter schools in Michigan. The whole system is confusing and varies by state, but the bottom line is that DeVos’ policies have taken a once mediocre statewide education system and turned it into a failing one. For the past three years as Secretary of Education, she has continued to push these failing ideas on the national scale. 

When it comes to LGBTQ issues in schools, DeVos’ record is on par with any other evangelical Republican. Beginning in 2017, DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guideline that transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity per Title IX. In 2018, she announced that her department would not hear any complaints from transgender students regarding being barred from the appropriate bathroom. Perhaps her most worrying action is attempting to remove questions about sexual orientation for 16 and 17-year-olds on the National Crime Victimization Survey. It’s one thing to be ignorant of an issue, and another to intentionally suppress data collection into a subject we know to be of grave concern to the safety of students.

Finally, we have arrived at the present day. Even during a once-in-a-century pandemic, Betsy DeVos is here to remind us that it can always get worse. Justice is rarely served for perpetrators of sexual violence, and many survivors are forced to relive the traumatic experience if they choose to file a report. Estimates for the percentage of sexual assaults reported are very low, ranging from 16% to 35%. Sexual assault is a major problem on college campuses, and Betsy DeVos has spent the last 18 months writing a new Title IX rule to deal with the issue. Her solution: Make it more difficult for survivors to report sexual assault and harassment.

The full rule summary is nine single-spaced pages long, but I’ll try to highlight the most important bits. For one, the rule now more strictly defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity”, which is a stricter definition than is currently used in employment law. Another key element is a required hearing and cross-examination of both the accused and the accuser. While the accuser is not required to be in the same room with the accused during the questioning, survivor advocacy groups argue that this questioning could re-traumatize victims and further prevent them from coming forward.

If that wasn’t enough for you, universities now have the option to increase the burden of proof necessary to conclude wrongdoing. They may either use the “preponderance of evidence” standard (whichever argument is more convincing) put forth by the Obama administration, or the new “clear and convincing” standard, which requires a more rigorous case. The university can decide which to use, but must apply it to all cases equally.

The Department of Education could be commended for taking steps to create binding law from decades of guidelines in the difficult arena of sexual assault and harassment cases, but if that is a step forward, the rules themselves are five steps back. To take additional measures to protect the accused in these cases, false accusations must be rampant, right? Wrong. The rate of false rape allegations is estimated at somewhere between 2% and 8%, the same rate as other felonies, and which is still inflated considering only about a quarter of cases are reported in the first place. Why is DeVos’ priority to make reporting sexual misconduct more difficult?

There are another half dozen smaller changes that I could talk about, but this article is quite long already. I think you get the idea if you’ve made it this far.

If you want to learn more about the villain that is Betsy DeVos, just Google her name. You won’t find one positive thing about her that isn’t on her own website, and you could write your own article about her reign of terror without ever overlapping with mine.

-J. Arc

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