Students who are victims of sexual assault or harassment are often afraid they won’t be believed or taken seriously, and terrified they’ll be victimized in a different way by people who refuse to investigate their claims and even insinuate that they “asked for it” based on what they wore, said, or did.
Rather than reassuring and supporting students, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the department’s head civil rights lawyer, Candice Jackson, are intensifying these fears and letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that their safety is not a priority.
Under DeVos, the most unqualified, out-of-touch secretary ever to head the department, guidance issued to schools and campuses in 2011 encouraging students to report sexual assault or harassment is being questioned. The guidance did not establish new law; it simply clarified schools’ responsibilities under Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in any federally funded education program.
In justifying the department’s skepticism, Jackson told The New York Times that most sexual assaults reported on 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.’”
Jackson has since apologized for her callous, offensive words. She says she was “flippant” and would never “diminish anyone’s experience,” particularly since she is a rape survivor herself. But in my view, she’s already done damage to students’ actual safety, as well as their sense of safety.
This only exacerbated actions by DeVos. The education secretary spent hours meeting with individuals and groups that are hostile to survivors of sexual assault, sending the message that she is far more concerned about the accused than the victims.
I spent many, many years as a teacher, and I believe in my heart and soul that every student deserves to be heard—no matter how difficult it may be for us to hear them—and every student deserves to be respected. My experience tells me that one of the most important ways we show our respect is by creating environments for learning where students feel challenged, supported, and most of all, safe. I question the commitment of DeVos and Jackson to that goal.
Jackson’s disparaging words in the Times article let me know that, notwithstanding her personal experience, she might be inclined to turn a blind eye to victims of sexual assault and assume off the bat that they’re making things up. She and DeVos are validating the choice some schools make to sweep allegations they don’t want to hear, let alone deal with, under the rug rather than take them on. DeVos and Jackson are undermining students’ sense that schools and campuses are places where educators and administrators will respect and protect their rights.
The 2011 guidance is too crucial to students’ safety, security, and peace of mind to be tossed around like a political football. In fact, 87 percent of voters polled in May of this year by Public Policy Polling agreed with the Department of Education’s role in investigating reports of sexual assault and providing support to students who have been assaulted.
We must insist that DeVos and Jackson not only to leave this crucial guidance in place, but truly listen to students’ voices and accord them the respect they deserve.
By Lily Eskelsen García
Lily Eskelsen García, an elementary teacher from Utah, is President of the National Education Association.