As a public school teacher, you see a lot of ugly things.
You see children with bruises under their sleeves. Kids who cringe when your voice gets too loud. Young people traumatized by sexual violence.
Even in middle school.
So when Betsy DeVos decided to take up for alleged rapists while making it harder for survivors of sexual assault to come forward, I took it kind of personally.
Last week, the Secretary of Education for the United States of America blithely announced her plan to no longer require colleges and universities that receive federal funds from prosecuting on-campus sexual assault with the same severity.
“The prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students,” she said at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.
“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve ‘victims’ only creates more victims… If everything is harassment, then nothing is.”
In other words, the billionaire heiress in charge of protecting students’ civil rights thinks there is a power imbalance between rapist and victim. And she’s right. Except that she thinks the alleged rapist is on the losing end of that imbalance.
This may be the most preposterous thing she has ever said. And she’s infamous for saying preposterous things.
In matters of sexual assault, all the power lies with the accuser!?
I have. I’m sorry to say that I’ve met some while working in our public schools.
To put it bluntly – they were my students.
Little children afraid to go home. Kids with backpacks and cartoon animals on their shirts. Barely teens who kept to themselves, arms locked across their chests. Youngsters who just wanted to stay in class as long as I was staying, who would draw and hum and soak up the least bit of human kindness.
Some of them eventually would confide in me, their teacher. Not that I asked. I would have preferred letting the guidance counselor handle it. I really wasn’t trained for it. But there’s only one thing to do when someone wants to tell you their story – you listen.
And that’s exactly what DeVos is telling us NOT to do.
Don’t listen to accusations of sexual assault unless there is a preponderance of evidence. Start from a position of skepticism and unbelief even so far as making accusers confront their attackers.
After all, it’s the only way to protect from false allegations. As if that were at all common.
Only someone devoid of empathy or intelligence could say such a thing with a straight face – much less present it as a statement of public policy.
Yet DeVos isn’t the only high ranking member of the Education Department voicing it.
Two months ago, Candace Jackson, the official responsible for enforcing campus sexual assault laws for DeVos’ department, told reporters that “90 percent” of 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.’”
Jackson, who heads the Department’s Office of Civil Rights, apologized for the statement after public backlash.
But now it’s federal policy!
Like much else from the Trump administration, it flies in the face of the facts.
False accusations do happen, but they are much less frequent than sexual violence. Only between two and ten percent of rape allegations are untrue, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Moreover, the same report found that 63 percent of sexual assaults are never even reported to police. Survivors of this heinous crime rarely come forward because of shame, fear and embarrassment.
That’s something I saw first-hand from my students.
They weren’t bragging about an experience they’d lived through. They wanted more than anything to forget it, to ignore what had happened, to get on with their lives. But they just couldn’t. They felt so betrayed, so vulnerable, so guilty, so frightened.
DeVos’ new policy will do nothing to change that. If anything, it will only embolden would-be attackers to attempt more assault – a crime that already affects nearly a quarter of college women.
According to a National Institute of Justice report, 20 percent of young women will become the victim of a “completed or attempted sexual assault” while in college. And more than 6 percent of men will also be assaulted.
We shouldn’t be making it harder for people who have been brutalized to seek justice. The accused should have due process, but that’s what an investigation is. In the rare instance of false allegations, those unduly impugned should be exonerated.
Despite what she says, DeVos’ recent actions have nothing to do with that. Before passing down her decision, she met with “Men’s Rights” groups like the National Coalition for Men – organizations that I can honestly say, as a red blooded American male, certainly don’t speak for me.
This is politics, not any concern for justice. It’s no accident that DeVos serves at the pleasure of a President who was caught on a hot microphone bragging about engaging in sexual assault. It’s no accident that his base includes white supremacists. It’s no accident that his party continually stomps on women’s rights.
If we really wanted to help survivors of sexual assault, we’d take steps to make sure the crime they lived through never happens again. At very least, we could take steps to make it more rare.
Imagine if instead of abstinence only sexual education classes, our children were taught actual facts about human sexuality. Imagine if every child learned the meaning and necessity of consent. No means no. Period.
That could have a real impact on these crimes. Over time, we could create a culture of respect and understanding. That certainly seems a worthier goal for a Secretary of Education than removing support for victims of sexual assault.
As to the handful of students who turned to me for help, I really can’t tell you what happened to them afterwards. In most cases, I don’t know myself.
In each instance, I turned to the authorities to ensure my students received the help they needed.
I hope they got it.
Unlike Ms. DeVos, I put them first.