On Tuesday night, sexual assault survivors flooded Capitol Hill to observe Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing.
While they may have had concerns about charter schools and student loans as well, the activists made the trip to see whether DeVos would publicly commit to preserving the official Title IX guidance on sexual assault that was established in 2011.
The guidance, which expanded gender discrimination protections on campus to sexual assault and sexual violence survivors, requires every school to have an established internal procedure to handle allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It also says that every time a complaint is filed the school must promptly investigate it, independent of whether or not the crime is reported to the police
When asked about the guidance by Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), DeVos said that she was aware of many “conflicting ideas and opinions around that guidance.”
Much to the chagrin of the survivors in the audience, when further pressed about whether or not she would commit to upholding the guidance, DeVos hedged.
“It would be premature for me to do that today,” she told Casey.
The answer might not have been comforting to advocates, but it wasn’t necessarily surprising. DeVos has a documented history of donating money to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that has opposed legislation aimed at preventing campus sexual assault and even provides legal counsel to students under investigation for sexual assault.
And, to perhaps state the obvious, she also feels comfortable serving under President-elect Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment many times and even infamously bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women. Later in the hearing, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) asked DeVos specifically about that Access Hollywood tape, and DeVos confirmed that if Trump performed the actions he bragged about — kissing and groping women without their consent — in a school setting, she would consider it sexual assault.
In recent years, the issue of campus sexual assault has become an epidemic — almost 20 percent of female college students report being raped or sexually assaulted every year.
Ahead of DeVos’s hearing, the organizations Know Your IX and End Rape on Campus joined together to start a #DearBetsy campaign on social media to stress the importance of the law.
“I hear every day from young survivors about why they too didn’t report to the police, and why Title IX — and all of its protections — have provided a desperately needed alternative to help them stay in school,” Mahroh Jahangiri, Executive Director of Know Your IX, said in a statement. “Title IX mandates that schools prevent sexual harassment and violence on campus and promptly and equitably address it where it occurs.
“Given that schools routinely shirk these obligations, the Department of Education’s work has been essential in holding schools accountable and helping ensure that students know about — and therefore, are able to advocate for — these rights.”
This post has been updated to include Devos’s comments on Trump’s Access Hollywood tape.