DeVos’ proposal hurts survivors of sexual assault


Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a news conference in Coral Springs, Florida, after meeting with students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on March 7.

By Anne Marie Yurik, Senior Staff Columnist

In a time when women and men are coming together to try to create a safer environment where sexual violence is not tolerated, the new Title IX regulations miss the mark entirely.

According to regulations proposed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the new definition of sexual assault would be consistent with the Supreme Court’s current definition. Put simply, this means that “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school’s education program or activity” is unlawful and will be regulated.

The definition of sexual harassment as needing to be severe enough to prompt response neglects to consider victim blaming and shaming. These new regulations also revert much of the progress that has been taking place, from the #MeToo to the #TimesUp movement. The burden is put on students and their families to reach out to the Board of Education to prevent the passage of a regulation that could potentially be harmful for survivors of sexual violence.

Even though Title IX is usually meant to protect the victims of sexual assault, DeVos’ new plan, which tries to protect those accused over the victims, is a step backward. The proposal creates a space where third parties can cross-examine witnesses or even the accusers in an attempt to verify their credibility, should either party deem it necessary.

Survivors of sexual assault respond to sexual violence and harassment in varying ways — some decide to report and others need to come to terms with what happened, while many never report at all. According to the National Institute of Justice, only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes and 26 percent of sexual assaults are reported.

Since the new regulations demand sexual assault survivors present more evidence and potentially get cross-examined by a third party per the request of their alleged assailant, this can further deter survivors from reporting. Opening survivors up to another encounter with their abuser can also be further traumatizing, according to Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author.

Victims are often too ashamed to come forward,” Engel told ABC news. “Sexual assault is a very humiliating and dehumanizing act against someone. The person really feels invaded and defiled, and there is a lot of shame attached to that.”

The potential shame of reporting sexual harassment as well as the depiction of women as money-hungry accusers can lead to fewer people reporting sexual harassment. When 60 women accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault, for which he was convicted in April, many people doubted Cosby’s accusers, labeling them as eager for fame instead of legitimate survivors. Cosby’s lawyer painted the accusers, specifically Andrea Constand, as con artists, saying Constand was “madly in love with his fame and money.” But throughout the case, Cosby’s face was the one plastered across the front pages of newspapers across America while the victims were ignored.

Still seemingly desperate for evidence against accusers, the justice system continues to use women’s clothes, demeanor and previous sexual history to indicate consent on their behalf. In Ireland earlier this month, a series of protests began following the use of a 17-year-old girl’s lacy underwear in court as evidence of consent. And many women who have consumed alcohol or drugs, according to a study by the University of Birmingham in September, are more likely to self-blame for the incident, and are therefore less likely to even report the rape at all.

Regardless of the gap between sexual violence and what gets reported, Americans are debating why colleges need to get involved in off-campus cases of rape at all. Title IX and students alike must hold colleges partially responsible for sexual assault violations because colleges are in charge of the health and well-being of their students. If universities referred out all sexual assault cases, reporting could plummet even further. The safe community that many universities try to build would shatter due to universities’ lack of ability to exercise authority.

But minority groups will be affected the most. Sexual assault impacts women of color and the LGBTQ+ community at higher levels, indicating that these new regulations will make campuses less safe for these groups. Nearly four in 10 women of color experience domestic abuse, higher than the reported statistics for white women. As for the LGBTQ+ community, nearly half of transgender and bisexual individuals are expected to experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.

DeVos’ proposal overestimates the amount of danger that the accused are in, and neglects to consider the emotional, physical and mental effects of sexual assault that many survivors experience. According to a 2010 study of the sexual assault claims that arise, only 2 percent of rape accusations were fake.

While “innocent until proven guilty” is the core credo of America’s justice system, more often than not the accused are escaping conviction for crimes they’ve probably committed. DeVos’ policy only raises the burden of proof for accusers, whose claims are seemingly already in doubt in the minds of the justice system and the general public.

Alternative forms of evidence should be considered instead. For example, testimonies from the accuser’s friends, therapist or other individual close to them could corroborate the accuser’s story and be an additional supplement capable of displaying consistency in story lines.

These changes are not finalized, and it is imperative that students voice their concerns to the Board of Education. According to the Department of Education, citizens have 60 days beginning from the point when the proposed changes are submitted to the Federal Registrar to send their comments to the government.

We have a little under two months to tell the Board of Education what we really think and create a space where survivors are able to share these traumas without being cross-examined by the perpetrator and burdened by a lack of concrete evidence. We can submit our comments to the Board of Education through the site’s online portal, which can be located at at According to the Board, comments can also be delivered by hand or via mail.  

As college students and human beings, we must do all we can to support survivors of sexual violence and create an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their experiences. It’s on all of us to ensure that the federal policy creates and maintains a safe environment for all students.