Betsy DeVos’ appointment as the Secretary of Education could have devastating effects for victims of sexual assault on college campuses, and threaten to reverse any progress on the issue of rape culture in universities in the United States. The potential is evident in not only her responses posed to her by United States Senators charged with her potential confirmation, but also in her past actions.
Betsy DeVos Appointment Could Make Situations Like Baylor Worse
DeVos’ history and ideology makes it clear how schools like Baylor University, which have fostered an atmosphere that not only allowed but condoned and supported the sexual assault of women by its football players, would have even less oversight and fewer negative consequences under her administration of the Department of Education.
To get a sense for DeVos’ ideology, which has been demonstrated in her political activity as well, we only need to look toward the responses she has given to Senators on questions about Title IX and the Office of Civil Rights.
DeVos’ Responses Create More Questions Than Answers
DeVos seems to have a “laissez-faire” attitude toward the federal Department of Education enforcing laws aimed at protecting the rights of students, according to her own responses to questions on the subject.
After responding to a question during her confirmation hearing on January 17 about her potential department’s enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with apparent ignorance of the law and stating that such enforcement should be left up to the states, DeVos further confirmed that non-committal to enforce federal standards for schools in written responses to more questions posed to her by Senators.
Her vagueness on enforcing federal standards is dangerous enough on its own, but paired with DeVos’ ideology demonstrated by her political activities, it becomes a potential regression of the rights of rape victims on college campuses.
DeVos’ Ideology Becomes Problematic in Proper Context
As Secretary of Education, DeVos would be not only over the government entity charged with enforcing Title IX to all schools which receive federal funding, but also the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which enforces laws like IDEA.
Her ignorance of and ambiguity on those responsibilities, as previously stated, are alarming enough, but paired with her political leanings become very problematic.
DeVos has been a strong proponent of private education, even of using federal dollars to fund an education system that isn’t accountable to the Department of Education through the “school choice” or voucher system. That ideology extends outward in the donations that she has made to non-profits which have fought federal regulations on schools.
DeVos has donated thousands of dollars to the non-profit group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has worked to roll back federal regulations on education. FIRE has been active on the front of federal regulations that mandate how colleges and universities must handle cases of alleged and actual sexual assault, arguing in court that the federal government has overreached and such matters ought to be handled by the schools unilaterally.
With DeVos’ effective avoidance of committing to her potential department enforcing these laws, all Senators have to go on is her past actions, which suggest that DeVos’ department would slack on those responsibilities. Put into the further appropriate context of the ongoing situation at Baylor, real damage could be done to students across the nation.
Using Baylor as a Hypothetical Situation for the DOE Under DeVos
When school officials are at least ignorant of, if not fully complicit with, cases of sexual assault like that which has been acknowledged by Baylor, that system of the school policing its own students fails to serve its purpose. That’s when the Department of Education is set up to step in.
Completely independent from any criminal proceedings brought by states against the perpetrators of the sexual assault and/or civil litigation filed by victims against liable parties, the Department of Education’s responsibility in cases such as Baylor is to provide some threat of undesired consequences, and if necessary, support those threats with appropriate action. When the Department of Education is ignorant of or unwilling to require schools to follow civil rights legislation, there’s simply no accountability for the violating schools.
In cases like Baylor, that becomes a tragic situation. The fact is that there is no specific NCAA by-law that Baylor violated, so the NCAA’s authority to punish Baylor is limited. Additionally, the NCAA has no jurisdiction over Baylor as a school, only over its athletic activities, and that only because Baylor has consented to that oversight. Expecting the NCAA to provide the fear of undesired consequences is unrealistic.
In theory, it’s possible that the frequency and size of Title IX lawsuits brought against the school by victims could act as a sufficient deterrent, but that theory assumes two things which are often not true. The first is that the victim or victims would have the resources to levy those suits, as the cost of legal fees and time necessary to see the suit through to its end are often imposing for victims considering filing suit. Many of these suits end up being settled out of court in exchange for non-disclosure agreements by institutions anxious to protect their public image.
The second reason why many alleged victims never file suit is that doing so forces the victims to re-live the tragic situation that caused them to be in position to file suit, in this case sexual assault. Many victims would rather do all they can to put the situation behind them.
That leaves criminal charges by local and state authorities as the next-best option for deterrent. It’s easy enough for colleges and universities to deflect that attention, however, pinning the illegal actions on the accused individuals and maintaining a stance that the school itself condemns such actions.
Further complicating the Baylor situation is the fact that Baylor is a private, Christian institution. Because of DeVos’ ideology demonstrated not only in her statements and donations to FIRE, but also her donations to the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, that makes her likelihood of even investigating, much less penalizing, allegations of Title IX violations at such an institution far less.
What could be created is a scenario in which victims of sexual assault who seek Title IX relief are ignored by the specific government structures intended to address those very concerns. Without that watchdog, there’s little deterrent for individuals like those involved in the Baylor scandal to perpetrate their actions. Whether or not this hypothetical situation becomes reality is currently in the hands of the United States Senate.
DeVos’ Future with the Department of Education
Although DeVos has passed through committee on a partisan 12-11 vote and thus reached the full Senate floor, the Senate has delayed the vote to Tuesday, February 7. It’s uncertain right now whether or not she will be confirmed by the full Senate.
Two Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have both announced their intentions to vote against DeVos’ confirmation. If no Democrats cross the aisle, that would create a 50-50 tie. In that scenario, Republican Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote, and he has announced that he will use it in DeVos’ favor.
If one additional member of the GOP would break rank, however, that would block DeVos’ appointment and force the Trump administration to assess its options. It could also prevent the advent of a Department of Education that is unwilling to fulfill its duties toward sexual assault victims on college campuses.
For the hundreds of thousands of women who have already experienced sexual violence on college campuses, and the millions more who will put themselves at risk of becoming victims of sexual assault simply by pursuing higher education, that blockage isn’t insignificant. It’s a matter of the quality of their lives and the sacred status of their individual agency in expressing their own sexuality.