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Sexual assault survivors to Betsy DeVos: ‘Exactly who are you here to serve?’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with President Trump, during a meeting with parents and teachers Feb. 14. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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In the Trump administration, you can learn a lot from a list of invited guests.

On Feb. 14, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a meeting at the White House with 10 representatives from the world of education. The list of invitees starkly signaled what the Trump-DeVos education agenda was going to be.

Among the 10,  two were from traditional public schools, and one was from a public school that specializes in special education. Three of the 10 were from private schools, two were home-schoolers, one was from a charter school and another was from a dropout prevention program.

Now consider this:

*Traditional public schools educate more than 80 percent of America’s schoolchildren.

*About 10 percent of schoolchildren in the United States go to private schools, according to 2013-2014 data, the latest available, with 38 percent of these enrolled in Catholic schools.

* About 5 percent attend charter schools, according to 2013-14 data, the latest available, though charter advocates say it is now 6 percent. Charter schools are publicly funded but operate outside traditional public districts, and many are run by for-profit companies.

* About 3 percent are home-schooled, according to 2012 data, the latest available.

If  you didn’t know before that meeting that Trump and DeVos were planning to push school “choice” — alternatives to traditional public schools — you would know from that list of invitees. And since then, the two have not disappointed choice supporters, proposing massive increases in spending for school “choice,” including a new program that would use hundreds of millions of public dollars to pay for tuition and other educational expenses at private and religious schools.

Now let’s move to July 13,  the day DeVos is holding what her department calls three “listening sessions” with a “diverse group of stakeholders” to discuss how schools should investigate sexual assaults.

As my Washington Post colleague Emma Brown explains in this article, DeVos is considering rolling back guidance issued in 2011 which detailed how K-12 schools and colleges must handle sexual assault allegations. That guidance was, the Obama Education Department said, a clarification of the obligations that schools already had under federal law, known as Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funds.

Sexual assault survivors hailed the administration for providing them with long-overdue protections, but while critics accused the Obama administration of federal micromanaging and pushing colleges to find students guilty. Meanwhile, the number of sexual violence cases under investigation by the department’s Office for Civil Rights multiplied went from 55 in May 2014 to 344 at 242 schools as of July 12.

During her “listening sessions,” DeVos met with nine survivors of sexual assault in one panel, and then, in a second panel, with nine people — seven students and two parents — who are advocating for male students who have been accused of sexual assault.

A third panel  included a number of representatives from schools and experts on the subject — though there is nobody invited from the Association of American Universities, which commissioned a 2015 survey that found that more than one in four women at a large group of leading universities said they had been sexually assaulted by force or when they were incapacitated while in college. (You can see the list of attendees below.)

Now consider this: While it is not known exactly what percentage of sexual assault allegations are false, and while some of the accused have indeed been falsely accused and dragged through years-long disciplinary processes, some experts estimate that the percentage among allegations that are actually false is no more than 8 percent. That’s 8 percent too many, but it is nowhere near a majority.

DeVos gave advocates for the wrongly accused equal representation at her “listening sessions” as sexual assault survivors.

At a demonstration in front of the Education Department on Thursday morning in support of survivors of sexual assault, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said that while she doesn’t want to see an innocent person punished “any more than I want to see a guilty person let off the hook” — too many sexual assault victims still are blamed for their own assaults and do not receive real justice.

And there’s more. Among the groups DeVos is meeting with is SAVE: Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has said wants “to roll back services for victims of domestic abuse and penalties for their tormentors,” as noted by noted. said another invitee, the National Coalition for Men, supported the Republican draft of the Violence Against Women Act, which opposed protections for LGBTQ Americans, and whose president has blamed domestic violence against women on the victims themselves.  Families Advocating for Campus Equality is another invitee; its co-founder, Sherry Warner-Seefeld, told the National Review that it is “dangerous” to mandate that universities hold annual surveys on sexual assault and make the results public.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) sent a letter to DeVos on Wednesday criticizing the decision to meet with representatives from groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “misogynist” and said it is “a slap in the face to the victims of campus sexual assault.”

Advocates press DeVos to keep protections in place for victims of sexual assault

If past is prologue, the construction of the listening sessions suggests that DeVos is on her way to changing the department’s rules on this issue, which is what advocates for sexual assault survivors have feared ever since DeVos refused to commit to maintaining the 2011 Obama-era rules when she was asked at her January confirmation hearing before the Senate education committee.

The hiring by DeVos of Candice E. Jackson as the head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights only deepened that concern, as Jackson has repeatedly made clear she believes that the rules governing Title IX, under which schools investigate sexual assault allegations, have led to false charges and injustice for some of the accused.

In an interview with the New York Times, Jackson said that the rights of accused students are too often ignored, that investigators at schools sometimes keep cases open for years because they have been “specifically told to keep looking until you find the violation,” and that “90 percent” of sexual assault accusations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’ ” She later apologized in writing for the “90 percent” line, saying:

“As a survivor of rape myself, I would never seek to diminish anyone’s experience. My words in the New York Times poorly characterized the conversations I’ve had with countless groups of advocates … All sexual harassment and sexual assault must be taken seriously — which has always been my position and will always be the position of this Department.”

Advocates press DeVos to keep protections in place for victims of sexual assault

More than 100 victims of sexual assault from 25 states published a letter in Teen Vogue urging DeVos not to take away protections for survivors, saying in part:

Years after students across the country initiated a wave of activism to hold these very institutions accountable, we are still being forced to ask the same question: “Exactly who are they here to serve? The students, or themselves?”
As survivors of sexual violence, we’ve continually had to advocate for ourselves, often because no one would advocate for us. We have been forced to ask this question again and again, of all the people and institutions that are supposed to serve us: our Title IX administrators, police officers, schools, teachers, deans, and now our government. This is not a philosophical or academic question regarding the responsibilities of higher education administration. It drastically impacts our and our peers’ lives — and now we must pose it to the highest offices in the country.
Today, we 114 survivors of sexual assault ask education secretary Betsy DeVos: Exactly who are you here to serve?


(Update: This post was updated to reflect that the meetings had taken place.)

Here is who appeared at DeVos’s hearing on campus sexual assault. To protect the identities of the students in attendance, the Department has excluded their names from the lists below and inserted in place of their names references to the organizations that represent them.

Session One: Survivors of sexual violence
Participants: End Rape on Campus (2 students), National Women’s Law Center (1 student), Girls Inc. (1 student), Liberty Education Fund (1 student), National Center for Transgender Equality (1 student), Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (1 student), SurvJustice (1 student), Human Rights Campaign (1 student)

Session Two: Students who have been falsely accused and disciplined under Title IX
Participants: National Coalition for Men Carolinas (2 students, 2 parents), Families Advocating for Campus Equality (3 students), Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (2 students)

Session Three: Representatives of educational institutions and subject matter experts
Participants: Dana Scaduto, General Counsel, Dickinson College; Pamela Bernard, General Counsel, Duke University; Jerry Blakemore, General Counsel, University of North Carolina-Greensboro; Kathleen Santora, President & Chief Executive Officer, National Association of College and University Attorneys; Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President, Government and Public Affairs, American Council on Education; Michelle Johnston, President, University of Rio Grande; Naomi Gittins, Managing Director, National School Boards Association; Phillip Hartley, Vice Chair, National School Boards Association; Kimberly Lau, Warshaw Burstein, LLP; Anne Hedgepeth, Interim Vice President, Public Policy and Government Relations, American Association of University Women; Deborah Blake, Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Law; Ritchie Berger, Board of Regents, American College of Trial Lawyers; Naomi Shatz, Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein, LLP; Dianne Harrison, President, California State University; John Jasinski, President, Northwest Missouri State University; Stephen Eck, Council for Christian Colleges & Universities; Steve Sandberg, Deputy GC, Brigham Young University; Patricia Bradley, Title IX Coordinator, Fayetteville State University; Michael Zola, Vice President for Government Relations and Policy Analysis, American Association of State Colleges and Universities