Mili Mitra is a Post Opinions intern.
Being a female college student in the United States today — at least for this female college student — means having second thoughts about walking to the library alone after dark. It means organizing a buddy system before attending a party. Most of all, it means knowing that you can do everything in your power to remain safe and still end up part of the 1 in 5 female undergraduates estimated to have experienced some form of sexual assault.
Candice E. Jackson doesn’t seem to see it that way. Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, told the New York Times that 90 percent of campus 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, calling her remark “flippant,” but the damage was done.
Jackson signaled to students and survivors everywhere that this administration does not plan to take campus assault seriously. What’s worse, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did not immediately repudiate Jackson’s statement. Indeed, the day after Jackson’s apology, DeVos held three “listening sessions” to discuss the future of campus assault policies and devoted an entire panel — one-third of her time — to men’s rights groups advocating for those who claim to have been falsely accused.
Between a conversation with campus assault survivors, and one with campus administrators and legal experts, DeVos met with representatives from Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), which is known for arguing that “female initiation of partner violence is the leading reason” for domestic violence, and the National Coalition for Men, whose chapters have published the names and photos of some Title IX complainants with the label “false accusers.” By giving a platform to these antiquated views, DeVos reinforced the idea that this administration will turn its back on existing campus sexual misconduct policies.
This would be a mistake. The Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter — which urged colleges to treat sexual harassment and violence as sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments — had its flaws, but it served an important purpose in waking colleges up to the seriousness of campus assault.
Before the Obama administration issued its guidance, campus sexual assault was all too often swept under the rug. College administrators would pass cases off to law enforcement and offer little or no support to student victims — or worse, discourage students from filing official reports. By threatening to revoke institutions’ federal funding, the guidance forced colleges to create better response systems. This likely increased reporting rates, which were abysmally low in years past.
And this is precisely what DeVos and Jackson miss when they normalize the narrative of false accusations. Given the financial, bureaucratic and emotional hurdles to filing a Title IX complaint, it is ridiculous to imagine that campuses are full of vindictive or misguided complainers trying to take advantage of the system.
Nor is this borne out by data: The FBI estimates that somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent of sexual assault allegations are false, while a 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that just 12.5 percent of surveyed rape survivors on campus reported their experiences to school officials. Although some situations may involve complicated questions of ambiguous consent or overconsumption of alcohol, the evidence clearly points to a crisis of underreporting, not over-reporting.
The Title IX guidance was created to address this very problem. That isn’t to say that it is perfect — far from it. Campus assault policies vary from college to college and can be vague, inconsistent and out of touch with reality. Moreover, the school officials charged with handling these cases are often overworked or unprepared, making the process inefficient and susceptible to misuse. But the answer isn’t to remove the guidance altogether and return to a system that was stacked against survivors.
We need a good-faith effort to reform the system — one that retains the strengths of the current process and hammers out its flaws. There is a reasonable debate over the standard of evidence used in Title IX decisions and how school administrators can be trained to respond to reports of misconduct. What shouldn’t be up for discussion is the need for federal guidance forcing colleges to take a critical look at sexual violence on their campuses.
If DeVos does withdraw or seriously undermine the Title IX guidance, she will broadcast to colleges that they can fall back into complacency — and tell perpetrators that the clampdown on campus assault is at an end. Perhaps the outcry over Jackson’s remarks will deter DeVos. But I’m not holding out much hope. When I return to campus in September, I’m bringing pepper spray.
Read more on this topic: