15:04, July 13 50 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-13 15:04:03
Betsy DeVos meets sexual assault survivors after her deputy apologizes

Following months of silence on whether she will continue the Obama administration’s aggressive attempt to reduce campus sexual violence, Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos met on Thursday with survivors of sexual assault, dozens of college administrators and some who say those policies caused them to be falsely accused and punished.

The private sessions took place under a cloud, after DeVos’s deputy in charge of civil rights dismissed the majority of sexual assault investigations handled by her department as involving “not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman”.

“Rather, the accusations – 90% of them – 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,’” Candice Jackson, acting assistant secretary for civil rights, told the New York Times.

Jackson apologized after dozens of anti-sexual violence groups said she was mischaracterizing the vast majority of sexual assault complaints.

“I would never seek to diminish anyone’s experience,” Jackson said in a statement. “My words in the New York Times poorly characterized the conversations I’ve had with countless groups of advocates. What I said was flippant, and I am sorry.”

Her apology came hours before DeVos began her day of meetings. The Republican donor and charter school activist-turned-secretary of education must decide if she will scrap or maintain policies, forged under Obama, which give the department wide latitude to scrutinize how colleges investigate claims of sexual assault.

Activists have spent months publicly pleading with DeVos not to reverse course. One group, Know Your IX, drove a Twitter campaign called #DearBetsy in which survivors asked DeVos to preserve their protections.

“When I was raped my school provided me free counseling thx to Title IX,” one user wrote. “Ensure other victims get the same.”

Colleges’ responsibility to handle claims of sexual assault derives from Title IX of a 1972 civil rights act. Many colleges have been lax in responding to student survivors of rape and assault. It was only in recent years however that high-profile accusations, some unfolding on the most elite campuses, forced the issue of how colleges respond into the center of a roiling debate.

Until now, the voices of those who demanded a stronger response from colleges have prevailed. Obama’s administration made the issue a centerpiece of its civil rights agenda and required colleges to adhere to uniform standards in adjudicating complaints of sexual assault. Colleges that failed to comply faced the loss of the federal funding that serves as their lifeline.

In its most celebrated and provocative move, the Obama administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter which outlined that standard and changed the evidentiary bar for finding that a sexual assault occurred and meting out discipline, such as suspension or expulsion. The old standard, “clear and convincing evidence”, became a “preponderance of evidence”.

DeVos faces enormous pressure – from conservatives, mostly men who say they were falsely accused, and some legal scholars – to rescind that letter and alter in other ways how the education department pursues complaints that a school mishandled sexual assault accusations.

That has left activists who labored for years to put the issue on the political radar fearing that schools will return to ignoring students who have been the victims of sexual assault.

“Survivors simply want the protections to remain in schools that the federal government and courts have institutionalized over the last four decades,” a group of 144 survivors of sexual assault wrote in an open letter to DeVos on Wednesday. “We cannot imagine a more cruel or misguided policy agenda than one that withdraws protections from vulnerable students.”

Even before Jackson’s controversial remarks, DeVos was under fire from many anti-sexual assault activists because of reports that her department had reached out to “men’s rights” groups frequently accused of misogyny.

One such group, Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, is charged by the Southern Poverty Law Center of “lobbying to roll back services for victims of domestic abuse and penalties for their tormentors”, under the guise of advocating for the falsely accused.

The group’s website features falsehoods such as the claim that “the leading reason” women become victims of intimate partner violence is because women initiate it.

Jackson drew controversy even before she orchestrated DeVos’ meetings on Thursday. Herself a survivor of rape, during the presidential campaign she said the many woman who accused Donald Trump of sexual violence were “fake victims”.