In the past year, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made one thing clear: she feels that survivors of sexual harassment and violence have it too good. To be sure survivors aren’t the recipients of unfair advantages, she repealed the Obama-era Dear Colleague letter, raised the legal standard for schools to conduct investigations and narrowed the definition of sexual harassment.
DeVos claimed these changes were made to clarify policies related to Title IX, as well as the role institutions are expected to play, to better protect both the accuser and the accused.
In practice, these changes only help the latter.
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Perhaps the most significant change in DeVos’ proposal is the redefinition of sexual harassment as “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 recipient’s education program or activity.” This adds ambiguous conditions to the more encompassing definition of “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” as implemented under the Obama administration. Essentially, it asserts that any instance of sexual misconduct must impede on one’s education before it’s taken seriously by authorities.
This change is insulting and appalling. DeVos and the Department of Education should not be implementing policies mandating that a student’s education suffers before their voices are heard. Their job is to improve education, not impede it, and policies should be written to allow administrators to get ahead of the problem instead of waiting for it to get worse.
But from the rest of the changes, it’s clear that silencing survivors’ voices is essentially the principal outcome.
According to The New York Times, the Department of Education estimated that under current policy, colleges and universities investigate an average of 1.18 cases of sexual harassment each year. Under the proposed policies, the department estimated that figure would fall to 0.72 investigations — and not because sexual harassment would become less common.
With one in five college women experiencing sexual assault, and even more experiencing sexual harassment, 1.18 investigations per year is already far too low. Those in authority should not be implementing destructive roadblocks which lower that already unsatisfactory figure.
At UW, this topic weighs heavier in the wake of Alec Cook’s sentencing, Quintez Cephus’ trials and the recent resignation of UW professor Harvey Jacobs. As evidenced in those three incidents alone, authorities should be making it easier for survivors to seek justice.
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These policies discourage survivors from speaking up, and only serve to protect the accused. That doesn’t increase campus safety — in fact, it makes the campus more dangerous because it ignores the root of the problem. The root of the problem is not that survivors are accusing people of harassment — the root of the problem is that people are harassing other students.
Betsy DeVos is not protecting students — she is protecting institutions. So, it’s on the institutions to protect us.
As UW students and members of this community, we charge the UW administration with upholding its commitment to keeping its students safe.
On Nov. 16, the UW System released a statement in response to DeVos’ proposal which declared it to be “committed to policies and practices that prevent sexual violence and harassment. We will be reviewing today’s announcement with our existing Title IX task force to take into full account the implications of the proposed rules.”
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That’s nice, but it’s nowhere near enough. The university administration owes its students more assurance of protection and safety than a two-sentence hollow platitude.
Moving forward, UW administration must defend the welfare of its students by protecting survivors who come forward, creating a safe environment for others to do so, taking accusations seriously and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions.
The onus is on the university administration to take every survivor seriously — not just those deemed serious enough or which deleteriously impact the university’s image.
All UW students deserve to be safe on and off campus. If the government is going to implement policies which threaten that safety, then the university must step up.
The Editorial Board serves to represent the voice of The Badger Herald editorial department, distinct from the newsroom, and does not necessarily reflect the views of each staff member.