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Lawyer: Betsy DeVos took away my moment of justice

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announces changes in federal policy on rules for investigating sexual assault reports on college campuses. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)

Laura L. Dunn is the founder and executive director of SurvJustice, a national nonprofit organization that represents sexual assault victims on campuses across the country. After hearing the speech Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave Thursday on campus sexual assault, promising to replace the “failed system” the Obama administration had put in place, Dunn was horrified. Here, she writes her opinion about the decision and what it will mean.

DeVos decries ‘failed system’ on campus sexual assault, vows to replace it

On April 4, 2011, tears streamed down my face while listening to Vice President Joe Biden announce that the U.S. Department of Education would better protect victims of sexual violence under Title IX.

On Thursday, tears of a different kind streamed down my face as I listened to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s promise to rescind those protections as part of the Trump administration’s ongoing rollback of civil rights protections for the most vulnerable.

That day in 2011 when the vice president invited me to be his VIP guest to witness the Obama administration’s commitment to survivors of campus sexual assault with Title IX, it was exactly seven years to the day after two men had raped me.

Biden’s announcement represented my personal moment of justice after struggling in vain to find redress through the campus, criminal, and civil systems before turning to the federal government.

I felt heard. I felt validated. I felt hopeful that, despite the rape I suffered, future survivors would be better protected against the institutional abuses inflicted upon them for daring to break the silence and demand justice.

The resulting Title IX guidance, known commonly as the Dear Colleague Letter, encouraged a wave of student- and survivor-driven activism across the country.

As part of this activism, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights received hundreds of complaints from survivors nationwide, and numerous schools have changed their policies and procedures to better respond to sexual misconduct.

Title IX Coordinators have been hired, campus law enforcement has been trained, court cases have awarded judgments to victims, and media have exposed long-standing scandals at many institutions.

In short, the prospect for justice became a reality for campus sexual assault survivors in this country thanks to Title IX.

This is why, upon graduating from law school in 2014, I founded SurvJustice — the only national nonprofit organization providing legal services to victims across the country in campus hearings.

Having received my moment of justice back in 2011, I went on to secure the right for both victims and those they have accused to have attorneys as advisers during campus hearings across the country, through the passage of the 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.

Not only did that law ensure advisers for both parties, it also ensured that both parties were entitled to prompt, fair and impartial hearings, with the ability to access evidence and call witnesses.

In short, the law bolstered important steps taken by Title IX to ensure a fair process for both victims and those accused.

Despite federal legislation and policy requiring schools to better prevent and address campus sexual violence, there has been a growing backlash to protect the impunity rapists have enjoyed for centuries.

Those who oppose Title IX claim that it denies the right of due process to accused students by misguided comparisons to criminal due process protections.

This is nonsense.

Courts have repeatedly found minimum due procedural safeguards sufficient under the 14th Amendment for disciplinary matters handled through campus-level hearings.

While there is a contingent of due-process advocates asking for additional procedural protections, this can be accomplished without rescinding Title IX protections.

The rescission is coming because too much of the conversation has been driven by men’s rights groups and other rape denialists who claim that the pendulum has swung too far in protecting the rights of victims (often women).

In truth, the pendulum hasn’t yet swung nearly far enough.

At most colleges and universities, the system still skews sharply in favor of accused students, especially those who are athletes, fraternity members and legacy students.

A rollback of civil rights for victims guaranteed by Title IX makes the system even less equitable, and schools will struggle without guidance.

DeVos has positioned herself as the patron saint of those who claim, preposterously, that students being falsely accused of rape is just as prevalent and just as important a problem as students being raped.

But the survivors, activists, advocates and attorneys who have led the movement to obtain justice for victims of sexual assault will not allow a distorting of the truth.

We are not going back to the bad old days of “boys will be boys.” We will take to the streets, to the campuses and to the courtrooms to ensure justice for survivors.

The historical protections of Title IX will continue to provide equitable outcomes to students who suffer discrimination, harassment and abuse from their classmates despite this setback.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I promise that SurvJustice will continue to fight as hard and as long as necessary to keep that arc bending in the right direction.