Early Friday morning, NBC News reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who is used to living in high luxury as a member of a billionaire family that owns a basketball team — has been using taxpayer money to command a security detail reminiscent of what a tinpot dictator like Muammar Gadhafi liked to flaunt. An estimated $20 million of your money and mine has been spent on her round-the-clock security detail, far surpassing the $3.5 million price tag for former EPA head Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration's most infamous taxpayer leech.
DeVos clearly likes feeling safe and secure and expects the taxpayer to spare no expense for her protection. But when it comes to the millions of girls in public schools and women in U.S. colleges and universities, she is not so considerate. On the contrary, the Department of Education proposed on Friday to massively roll back federal rules to protect students from sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape. The move suggests that the security-ensconced DeVos takes a more fend-for-yourself attitude about the safety of girls and young women in the education system.
DeVos was appointed to her office by Donald Trump, a man caught on tape gleefully bragging about how he prefers to "just start kissing" women and will "grab them by the pussy," noting that consent was unnecessary: "When you’re a star, they let you do it."
"I do think that their goal here is to ensure that [abuse] survivors don’t report," said Jess Davidson of End Rape on Campus, of the newly proposed rules. “This is going to significantly reduce the amount of investigations that schools open.”
The proposed rules appear to be focused mostly on throwing up obstacles to reporting, and making victims wonder if it's worth their while to ask for help. The definition of what constitutes sexual harassment will be significantly narrowed, and the number of people to whom a student can report such claims will be drastically limited, forcing victims to work up the nerve to talk to strangers in official positions rather than trusted professors or student leaders. The level of evidence required to discipline an offender will be similar to what is needed to convict someone in a criminal trial, rather than the current standard, which is modeled on civil liability court.
In addition, a student who is raped by another student while off campus will have no recourse with the school, a limit that Davidson flagged as especially ridiculous.
“Most sexual assaults do not happen at the library," she said. "They happen at the bar or an off-campus party.”
If an accuser manages to get over these new hurdles, the proposed regulations seem designed to make the investigation process far more punishing for her. Schools must allow an alleged assailant to personally cross-examine his accuser, setting up a situation where he could potentially re-traumatize and bully her before an audience.
If the accuser seeks relief from contact with her alleged abuser during this process, the proposed rules say that relief cannot "burden" the accused. Supposedly there will be mutual responsibility for maintaining a no-contact order, but in practice, this is likely to mean the alleged victim will be forced to move or change her class schedules in order to stay away from the accused.
Notably, these rule changes are focused only on sexual misconduct allegations. Students who have complaints about another student stealing from them or assaulting them in a non-sexual manner will encounter no differences in the way such cases are reported or handled.
Most of the focus on these proposed rule changes has concerned college students, but it's worth noting that Title IX regulations on sexual harassment and abuse are also meant to cover students in public schools. The September hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, in which he was publicly accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford when both of them were high school students, helped draw national attention to the fact that these problems aren't limited to adults.
Unfortunately, the same administration that pushed Kavanaugh's nomination through the Senate is also in charge of determining what rights girls and women who find themselves in Blasey Ford's situation should have.
During the early stages of drafting these rules, DeVos leaned heavily on the advice of "men's rights" groups that exist primarily to stoke fear of women's equality and to promote the idea that false accusations are common, which they aren't. False reports of rape, for instance, only constitute 2 to 8 percent of reports overall. The percentage of false accusations is even smaller, as most women who make false reports tend to invent lurid stories about stranger rape rather than accuse men they know.
At least one of the groups that advised DeVos during this process has been flagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center as promoting misogyny and male supremacy.
As the debate has dragged on about the rights of student victims, critics of the Title IX law — which requires schools to offer environments free of sexual abuse — have frequently suggested that schools should stay out of this issue entirely and leave such matters to the police. In theory that may sound like a reasonable solution, but Davidson offered some important objections.
“The police cannot change somebody’s class schedule. They cannot change somebody’s dorm accommodation," she said, noting that it often takes months or years to adjudicate a rape case through the criminal justice system. In the meantime, she noted, "most students just do not want to sit in math class with the person that sexually assaulted them."
This objection also doesn't take into consideration how much Title IX enforcement is about sexual harassment, which often doesn't rise to the level of a criminal offense but can make it impossible for the victim to attend classes and finish schoolwork in a safe and equal fashion.
This past year has witnessed the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has highlighted the various ways that women are routinely harassed and assaulted in the work environment. The limits DeVos wishes to impose on schools would make it impossible for many of the women in these stories to get justice. Many abusers, for instance, don't harass colleagues in the office environment, but in an informal social situation or by pestering them at home. But many such men were fired or otherwise penalized, because common sense tells us that this off-hours abuse still affects the work environment. Students at school deserve the same consideration.
“The system is not built for survivors. It is not built for marginalized people. It is built to protect powerful white men," Davidson said, adding that DeVos' new proposal "is yet another clear example of that."