A TOP Education Department official has apologized for saying that “90 percent” of campus sexual assault claims result from both parties being drunk. In this case, though, apology isn’t enough. Having expressed her true opinion, she needs to resign. There are complex and arguable questions to be sorted out in the area of how sexual assaults on campus should be policed and punished. But someone who doesn’t think sexual assault on campus is a real problem in the first place is not qualified to do that sorting.
The controversial comments by acting assistant secretary for civil rights Candice Jackson, who has a record of questionable statements, came as the department considers whether to continue the Obama administration’s aggressive approach that forced colleges and universities to take seriously allegations of sexual assault. After a series of meetings Thursday with advocates for victims and those who have been accused, as well as subject-matter experts and representatives of educational institutions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said there has been unfairness resulting from the current policy but gave no clue about possible changes.
Victims’ advocates fearing that protections will be rolled back were appropriately alarmed by what Ms. Jackson told the New York Times on the eve of Thursday’s meetings. In investigations brought under Title IX, Ms. Jackson said, there’s “not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman. . . . [They] 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.’ ” In the backlash, Ms. Jackson, pointing out she is a rape survivor, said she was sorry for being “flippant.”
What she should have apologized for is continuing the myth that women are prone to bringing false accusations of rape. Rape is an underreported crime, and the prevalence of false accusations has been estimated at between 2 and 10 percent. Victims often don’t step forward precisely because they don’t think they will be believed or they fear punishment and retaliation from the authorities who are supposed to protect them.
Indeed, for far too long that was the norm at colleges and universities across the country as a blind eye was turned to sexual misconduct and the student drinking that often factors into these cases. Victims were discouraged from making reports, and attackers went unpunished as institutions worried more about protecting their image. The Obama administration was right to call universities to account for how they handled these cases and remind them they stood to lose federal funding because sexual assault is sex discrimination, which is prohibited under Title IX.
No question that colleges and universities face challenges in putting in place disciplinary systems that fairly and effectively deal with allegations of sexual misconduct. There is the need not only to support victims but also to provide due process to guard against mistakes and injustice. Whether the guidance issued by the Obama administration resulted, as some argue, in unintended consequences and needs adjustment is worthy of careful study and debate — which Ms. Jackson is unqualified to lead.
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