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Betsy DeVos’ ‘listening sessions’ spark backlash over sexual assault policies

Posted at 5:24 PM, Jul 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-13 23:50:01-04

WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hosted a series of “listening sessions” on Thursday afternoon for various groups impacted by Title IX as part of the Department of Education’s re-evaluation of Obama-era policies regarding sexual assault on college campuses.

Those in attendance included representatives from a men’s rights group, as well as sexual assault survivors and representatives from educational institutions, according to a news release from the Department of Education.

“No student should be the victim of sexual assault,” DeVos said. “No student should feel unsafe. No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel the scales are tipped against him or her. We need to get this right, we need to protect all students and we need to do it quickly. It’s obvious the toll this places on everyone involved.”

The event initially sparked backlash when it was announced that students and parents involved in the National Coalition for Men Carolinas would be present, but comments made to The New York Times by the Education Department’s head for the Office of Civil Rights thrust the issue into the spotlight.

The acting head of the Education Department’s civil rights office, Candice Jackson, said Title IX investigation processes have not been “fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,” and “Rather, the accusations — 90% of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,'” according to The New York Times report, published Wednesday.

“We are listening and we know that this policy has not worked in too many ways and in too many places and we need to get it right and so we are determined through the course of conversation and the course of discussion with all parties to ensure that whatever is done in the future will address the issues and get them right,” DeVos said about Jackson’s comments — also noting Jackson had since apologized.

Title IX is a federal law prohibiting “discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity,” included in this is protection from sexual harassment, according to the Department of Justice.

The Thursday afternoon event was preceded by a rally, attended by people who oppose President Donald Trump administration’s handling of various Title IX protections.

Activists and politicians gathered out front of the Department of Education on Thursday morning to voice opposition to potential changes to the civil rights law by the Trump administration and share personal stories of sexual assault.

“I’m here today because this issue came to be because young people spoke out. Women dragged mattresses around college campuses to make the point that they weren’t safe. They awakened in us a responsibility to address this issue,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, said at the rally.

“If Secretary DeVos rolls back these protections, justice will not be possible,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, told reporters.

Jackson has since walked back her comments according to The New York Times, but efforts to push back against DeVos on the issue remain.

When asked about Jackson’s comments at the rally, Speier said: “I must say that I was dismayed, and I believed that she is not well versed on the issue. She needs to become much more educated about what her responsibilities are.”

In February, the Department of Education rolled back protections for transgender students in public schools who used and facilities that corresponded with their gender identity.

The Obama administration interpreted Title IX to include these transgender student protections. However, in a letter, the Trump administration said the policies did not provide “extensive legal analysis” or “explain how the position is consistent with the express language of Title IX.”

When asked Thursday about the definition of sex in Title IX, DeVos said: “I think all students deserve protection, all students, that’s all students. And I think there’s been a lack of clarity in this area and I think it’s time for Congress to address this. This department is not going to make laws from this department. It’s Congress’s role to make laws so I think it’s high time for Congress to look at a law that was passed in 1972 and address these issues and finally speak to them and clarify them.”

At the event Thursday morning, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten disputed that assessment.

“To now have — not just a President who has a reputation of denigrating women — but to have a secretary of education who wants to roll back rights for transgender kids and roll back the protections that college students and young women have gotten against sexual assault is sickening,” she said.