From the Daily: Prioritize and protect survivors

Monday, September 25, 2017 - 5:59pm

In an anecdote-laden speech on Sept. 7, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos outlined perceived problems in Title IX policies, including the lack of due process for those accused of sexual assault. On Sept. 22, DeVos announced the Department of Education would be rolling back on Obama-era policies addressing sexual assault on college campuses. Her remarks have been met with negative reactions from various politicians and organizations who consider her plans insensitive to survivors of sexual assault and misinformed on the prevalence of assault on campuses. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board believes that DeVos’s rollback unfairly shifts the conversation away from the survivors and detrimentally frames a humanitarian issue as partisan. We urge universities to prioritize the welfare of survivors when enacting sexual assault policies on their campuses.

Sexual assault on college campuses has been a focal point in policy and the news recently. Much of this focus is due to the increased risk of sexual assault on college campuses. According to a report by the Justice Department in January of 2016, one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. Seven percent of men in the study reported being victims of sexual assault. In 2015, the University  released the results of a campus climate survey, which showed that roughly 11 percent of students on campus — including female, male, graduate and undergradute students — reported "some form of nonconsensual sexual behavior during the past year." University policies on sexual assault have been the target of increased scrutiny and revision following an increase in the number of complaints from survivors and the accused.   

In 2011, the Obama administration attempted to make headway on the issue by releasing the “Dear Colleague” letter, outlining the standards universities should meet regarding sexual assault policy. The "Dear Colleague" letter also clarified how the administration intended to interpret Title IX legislation in regard to cases of campus sexual assault. It includes a section that calls for universities to require a “preponderance of the evidence” standard when analyzing sexual assault cases. Preponderance of evidence more likely favors the complainant, which DeVos has taken issue with.

In her speech, DeVos spoke at length of the violation of due process this clause causes, specifying it was unfair to those accused and that it leads to unjust judgements and defamation. Though DeVos used many anecdotes in her speech to depict the prevalence of false accusations of sexual assault, statistics show the percentage of reports that are classified as false are only about 2.1 to 7.1 percent. She also doesn’t acknowledge the fact few people report their assaults to the police, meaning many assaulters never receive punishment for their crime in the justice system.

The University has taken significant strides to help survivors. Following DeVos’s initial threat to roll back Title IX guidelines, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel sent an email to the community citing the University would stick to its current sexual assault policies. In 2016, the University revised its sexual misconduct policy from 2013. It more clearly defines “consent,” stresses that past or current relationships do not constitute consent each time, and, for the first time, outlines step by step what was involved in reporting an assault to the University.

Still, Devos’s policy change will have dangerous ramifications. Despite our university’s commitment to standing with survivors of sexual assault, without federal pressure, it is likely not all college campuses will follow suit.

Many detractors of Title IX guidelines argue institutions of learning should not meddle in students’ legal affairs. Rather, they believe these cases should be reported directly to legal authorities. Doing so, however, removes the agency survivors have in choosing how to proceed with their case. By taking away the survivor’s choice about a highly personal and traumatic event in their lives, it will likely make the situation much more difficult. Furthermore, college administrators have a unique responsibility to deal with sexual assault given the proximity survivors are put in with their assaulters on a college campus.

Additionally, those who oppose the Title IX protections fear that those who are wrongfully accused of sexual assault on university campuses will have their lives ruined, despite clear evidence that few would end up convicted, or even tried. Universities do not levy criminal punishment for perpetrators; the worst thing that can happen to a student at the university level is expulsion, which, in the grand scheme of things, is a lot better than serving time for a felony offense.

In order to eliminate the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, the conversation must center around survivors. The federal government must work toward solidifying tangible solutions for students who survive sexual assault solutions so they, too, can work toward the future they dreamed of. But given that the current federal government is not going to hold them to the previous standards, the University, and universities across the country, must continue to set its own high standards to combat sexual misconduct on its campuses.