Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is being sued for a decision she made in September 2017 – her administration decided to roll back Obama-era policies regarding campus sexual assault, citing that the system has created a climate that treats the accused unfairly. According to The New York Times, under the previous federal policy, campuses were asked to use the lowest standard of proof; schools could hold the accused responsible if more than 50 percent of the evidence pointed to guilt.
The Obama-era policy was never aimed to punish more people accused of sexual assault – it was meant to make it easier for sexual assault survivors to come forward. Now, “clear and convincing evidence” is required for any action to take place. The new policy weakens sexual assault protections, discouraging students from reporting sexual assaults on campuses due to uncertainty about how university administrations may respond. DeVos may have denounced sexual assault in her September remarks, but she focused more on the accused who were “denied due process in campus proceedings than victims.”
One of the most difficult and emotionally taxing components of a sexual assault investigation is coming forward with evidence. “The vast majority of campus sexual assault cases involve a lot of alcohol and no witnesses, so you essentially have two people who were probably drinking trying to recall events that may have happened weeks, months, or even years before,” as Justin Dillon, a lawyer in Washington who has represented college men accused of sexual misconduct, reported to the New York Times. A study entitled “False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases” suggests that false reports of rape and sexual assault are rare. In fact, sexual assault is grossly underreported, with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics stating that only 15.8 to 35 percent of all sexual assaults are ever reported to the police. Reasons for not reporting include fear of retribution, the lack of a clear system of response and consequences, lack of proof and the survivor feeling that the crime was not serious enough. DeVos’ decision only serves to exacerbate these reasons for non-reporting.
DeVos’ rewriting of policies devalues the gravity of sexual assault, further perpetuates rape culture and will adversely affect safety on college campuses by making it harder for survivors to come forward. As of now, USF has not changed its policy on sexual assault. The Sexual Misconduct Policy states,“The standard for determining a violation of the Sexual Misconduct Policy is that of a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ – meaning it is more likely than not that a violation occurred.” USF promises that the safety of the campus community is their biggest priority, encouraging reporting when necessary and providing training to students across residential life employment and Student Leadership and Engagement in Title IX policy to affirm their commitment to campus safety. The Title IX office’s First Six Weeks campaign and I Heart Consent week are among several events USF puts on to set the tone for how the university enforces Title IX.
In terms of support that USF provides to students, our university is a pioneer in this field, having launched Callisto, a platform for students to “securely and privately create a record of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault.” Like a diary, students may collect their thoughts and write as much or as little as they would like. Entries could either be submitted to be reported or could simply be saved to be reported at some other time, giving sexual assault survivors autonomy to decide what they would like to happen.
As a community assistant, I strongly advocate for the safety and comfort of my residents and the community that I serve. Sexual assault is just as serious of a crime as the crimes we read about in Public Safety emails, and while DeVos’ administration does not see it as such, USF remains committed to addressing sexual assault on campus as it should – by treating it as as serious of a crime as it truly is and caring for the safety of survivors and the community.