Betsy DeVos' huge step back for college women's safety

DeVos BCU Speech Protest_00002527
DeVos BCU Speech Protest_00002527

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Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: Obama administration held schools accountable for what happened on campus
  • Betsy DeVos is reexamining -- and possibly reversing -- these sexual assault policies

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The numbers tell us that one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college (some reports even put the figures at more than one in four). They also tell us that 63% of sexual assaults -- on and off campus-- are not reported to the police.

And yet, this week, Betsy DeVos and Department of Education officials will host a series of "listening meetings" as part of an effort to reexamine, and perhaps begin to reverse, policies put in place by then-President Barack Obama (and championed by then-Vice President Joe Biden). These policies were designed to make it easier for victims to come forward and harder for colleges to mishandle reports of sexual violence on campus.
    Peggy Drexler
    Obama pushed for accountability. He mandated that universities work to better address campus sexual assault so that school was a safer place for all students. Many fear, however, that DeVos will let schools return to practices that seem to favor the accused, included letting accusations stand without taking action and forcing victims to sign nondisclosure agreements.
    It's perhaps not much of a surprise: She has donated $10,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group working to undo Obama's work regarding campus sexual assault.
    And, well, look at who she's surrounded herself with. Yesterday, DeVos's Acting Assistant Secretary, Candice E. Jackson, told the New York Times that 90% of accusations on college campuses "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'"-- a disturbing, to say the least, sentiment to be expressed from someone in the position of advocating for civil rights and student safety.
    Instead, Jackson's words specifically serve to perpetuate rape culture. She recounted meetings with students whose futures were derailed by accusations, and described listening to a mother talk about her son, who she found "trying to kill himself because his life and his future were gone, and he was forever branded a rapist." Said Jackson: "That's haunting."
    You know what else is haunting? Being raped.
    Under the Obama administration, schools were required to implement stricter guidelines for receiving and reviewing accusations. They were, more than ever before, held accountable for what happened on their campuses. What's the problem with accountability? In addition, states began implementing "Yes Means Yes" laws, mandating the teaching of affirmative consent, meant to end any confusion around the claim that "well, she didn't say no." This is a policy that protects both potential victims and potential perpetrators.
    DeVos's focus on helping the "falsely accused" is deeply concerning. While false reporting exists, it is relatively rare -- estimated between 2% and 10%. Repealing the anti-campus violence policies put in place by Obama would -- like many things proposed by the Trump administration over the last few months -- be a huge step back for women's safety, and equality in general, on campuses and elsewhere.
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    If most women who are raped or assaulted even now do not report it out of fear of retaliation by the aggressor or in the case of colleges, the school administration, what can we expect in a post-DeVos era?
    It's true that both sides of any case must be heard. That's due process, and incontestable.
    But there is no downside to holding schools accountable for what happens on their campuses. Nor is there in making campuses safer for the greatest number of people. Like Yes Means Yes, that's just common sense.