Sexual assault is a non-polarizing issue. It is a heinous crime and victims of such acts should be protected and met with the utmost sympathy. Unfortunately, with Betsy DeVos’ announcement last week of the Department of Education’s rollback of Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on campus, she shamefully politicized sexual assault and affirmed that our current administration does not stand with victims.
This rollback is a direct response to the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague Letter” to campuses across America in 2011. This letter laid out guidelines for how campuses should handle allegations of sexual assault and made it clear that the administration would ensure that schools were making these investigations a priority. The guidelines made it clear that victims were to be the priority in these investigations, and helped them by making schools open up campus channels for reporting so that students would not have to deal with often hostile local police forces and justice systems.
One of DeVos’ main criticisms of the Obama-era guidelines was the standard they suggested schools use in examining sexual assault cases. Their guideline was that there be a “preponderance of evidence” against the accused before a conviction. This is a more lenient standard for evidence than the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard used in the U.S. legal system. “Preponderance of evidence” helps the victim, “beyond reasonable doubt” helps the accused. In the case of campus sexual assault, the victim should always be the priority.
Sexual assault cases are some of the most difficult criminal cases to investigate. There is often no other evidence besides the testimony of the victim, which is almost always refuted by the perpetrator. It is often difficult for even a “preponderance of evidence” to be collected. To have to reach “beyond a reasonable doubt” makes rape almost impossible to convict, evidenced clearly by the fact that only 0.7 percent of accused rapists will ever be convicted.
Additionally, since this standard applies only to campus deliberations, the future of the accused at the educational institution is at stake. A stricter standard of evidence makes sense when a person could possibly be imprisoned, but in the case of campus hearings, they are simply deciding whether or not a student still deserves to be a part of the campus community. Those who disregard the safety and bodily autonomy of fellow students most definitely do not deserve this privilege.
DeVos and her advocates could argue, of course, that no standard of evidence is appropriate when the student is falsely accused. Though this deeply misogynistic myth – the one of the falsely accused student whose life was ruined by a spiteful college woman – has been disproven time and time again, the statistics deserve to be revisited. According the the FBI, only about 2 percent of reported rapes and sexual charges are determined to be false. This number should also be considered with the fact that 63 percent of rapes are never even reported. This would diminish the number of false accusations compared with real sexual assaults even further.
DeVos’ statement sent a terrifying message to victims and women all across America: this administration will not make sexual assault a priority, and when they do, it is to protect the rights of rapists. She, and the administration she speaks for, should be ashamed of this decision that so many survivors groups have already spoken out against.
In the face of this statement, The University of Alabama has a responsibility to recommit itself to advocating first and foremost for the victims of sexual assault. Administrators should make clear that they do not support DeVos’ statements and that they do not intend to back down when it comes to pursuing justice for victims. We are lucky to have a designated Title IX office and coordinator as well as multiple channels for reporting within this office. The University should continue to support and expand this office to make sure all victims have the opportunity for their voices to be heard. They should also continue to operate according to the “preponderance of evidence” standard that is currently included in the official UA Sexual Misconduct Policy.
Sexual assault policies should not be complicated. They should support the victim through every step of an incredibly difficult journey, from the first report to the last day in court. Universities should unequivocally condemn sexual misconduct that makes students feel unsafe and unwelcome, and not give credence to the myth of false accusations that is only used to strip victims of their rights and their credibility. DeVos created gray areas in an issue that should be black and white. Victims everywhere will feel the repercussions.