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I want to tell Betsy Devos that I am scared | COMMENTARY

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a meeting with higher education leaders on safely reopening schools last month in Indianapolis.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a meeting with higher education leaders on safely reopening schools last month in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP)

As a young adult in 2020, it is natural to be fearful and anxious of both the present and future. Undergraduate and graduate students are tasked with balancing numerous academic, professional and personal goals on top of a pandemic. As a student myself, I share these concerns, but I also worry about my safety and well-being.

With one in four undergraduate women and one in 10 students overall being victims of rape or sexual assault, I worry about walking anywhere alone, regardless of time of day. I am terrified of being attacked while finding my car in a parking garage, getting into a Lyft alone and going grocery shopping at night. Despite taking normal “precautions” that society has taught me, I must stay alert even when I am not alone because stranger rape is not the biggest threat. A shocking 80% of perpetrators are known by their victims. I grow more afraid every day because of the epidemic of sexual assault and violence in our nation.

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I am even more fearful now, after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released final regulations to protect the accused in schools’ adjudication processes of reports of sexual assault. The regulations are to go into effect on August 14th. Sexual harassment and assault fall under sex discrimination and are covered by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Any school that receives federal funding must follow Title IX, which was strengthened by the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter to support and provide justice for survivors. Ms. DeVos’ changes directly contradict this letter.

Advocates agree that these changes are an enormous step backward. Ms. DeVos’ regulations narrow the definition of sexual harassment to exclude many instances, make it harder for students to report incidents and increase the rights of the accused at the detriment of survivors. Despite the fact that a large number of assaults occur off-campus or abroad, schools are directed to ignore these incidents, thus negating students’ experiences and preventing justice. The location of an assault does not erase the fact that it happened or take away students’ pain, both during incidents and afterward. Abusers should be held responsible regardless of where they harmed their victims.

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Furthermore, schools are directed to use a higher evidentiary standard when investigating sexual harassment and assault. This sets survivors up to fail by requiring that they provide more evidence than the accused, thus inherently favoring the accused. Ms. DeVos’ changes also create a disparity in how schools respond to cases of sex discrimination compared to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity or disability. Essentially, Ms. DeVos is discounting discrimination on the basis of sex, further exacerbating gender inequality and violence against women in our society.

In addition to being scared of the act of sexual violence itself, students face the extra burden of fearing repercussions after disclosing their experiences. They worry about not being believed by friends, families, advisers and college administrators. Survivors are blamed for situations in which they had no control, in which their personhood was violated to the highest degree, in which they did not “ask for it.” With the new Title IX changes, survivors will be forced to relive their trauma through cross-examination during investigations. As these investigations are different from courtrooms, there is no evidence that cross-examination is necessary.

Sexual assault and violence have lasting negative effects on survivors, with almost 40% having difficulty in work or school and 90% experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Campuses must ensure that all survivors have access to support and resources, which are less accessible if incidents are left unreported. Less than 10% of college student sexual assault survivors report incidents, and this number will unfortunately likely decrease once Ms. DeVos’ changes go into effect. Thus, students will have decreased access to resources and will be at increased risk of consequences such as depression, suicide, and drug use.

After championing against these changes for two years, I feel defeated. I am angry for students who will question whether they should report and at abusers who will be free to do more harm. I grieve for survivors who will not have access to resources and may suffer throughout their lives as a result. I am appalled that Betsy DeVos released these changes during a pandemic, when victims of domestic abuse are forced to shelter-in-place with their abusers. Most of all, I am afraid of being assaulted and not receiving support and justice afterward. I want to tell Ms. DeVos these things, but she is not interested in the perspectives of the students she claims to represent.

Sara Wallam (swallam1@jhmi.edu) is medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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