DeVos under fire from Michigan Dems over school sexual assault policy

Betsy DeVos at Valencia College | U.S. Department of Education via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

WASHINGTON — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is facing intense criticism from congressional Democrats and advocacy groups as she prepares to overhaul how schools handle sexual assault allegations.

Sign posted on the MSU campus | Michael Gerstein

The forthcoming final rule — expected in the coming months — stands to be one of the most controversial moves of her tenure as education secretary. DeVos could face tough questions from congressional Democrats on the sexual assault policy and other issues next week as she heads to Capitol Hill to testify.

At issue is a draft regulation issued last year by the President Donald Trump administration that would replace former President Barack Obama-era guidance on how to enforce Title IX, a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs.

The rule proposed by DeVos aims to reduce schools’ liability for investigating claims of sexual harassment and assault and to bolster the due-process rights of those accused.

Betsy DeVos

Her critics — including Michigan Democrats and advocates of sexual assault victims —  warn that the overhaul will inappropriately limit schools’ liability, discourage students from reporting incidents and tip the scales toward accused perpetrators.

“The message that they’re sending is that they believe that protections for survivors of sexual assault are less important than protections of people accused of sexual assault,” said Osub Ahmed, a policy analyst for women’s health and rights at the Center for American Progress. “It’s important to assure protections of all students.”

DeVos and her backers, however, say the revisions will improve schools’ responses to sexual misconduct.

“Every survivor of sexual violence must be taken seriously, and every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” she said in a statement. “We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetrate it, while ensuring a fair grievance process. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas.”

More than 105,000 comments on the proposed rule were filed by the public on the website, regulations.gov.

Among those was a letter from U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn).

Dingell wrote to DeVos earlier this year that the Title IX regulations she had proposed were “deeply troubling.”

Dingell added, “In Michigan, we have seen first-hand in the case of Larry Nassar even with Title IX, a university system could systematically overlook pervasive sexual assault and harassment as was seen.”

Nassar, a former Michigan State University doctor, was convicted last year for decades of sexual abuse under the guise of medical treatment.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) also sent a letter to DeVos asking her to abandon the Title IX proposal.

“The proposed rule makes it harder for survivors to seek redress and upsets established due process protections, excuses institutional apathy towards sexual harassment and assault complaints, and makes schools and campuses less safe,” Tlaib warned.

The advocacy group It’s On Us released a video in December featuring actress Alyssa Milano titled “A Story of #OneShIXttyGift from Betsy DeVos.” Milano reads a parody of a children’s book, saying, “Sweep assault under the rug! Walk back student rights! Protect predators when they put up a fight.”

Other Michigan Democrats have expressed outrage, too.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), whose 8th District includes East Lansing, wrote a letter to DeVos this year saying under the proposed rule, Michigan State University “would likely not have been required to take action to protect the survivors of the Larry Nassar scandal,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

Elissa Slotkin’s ceremonial swearing in, Jan. 13, 2019, Lansing | Andrew Roth

“This rule will excuse large swaths of harassing activity from scrutiny,” Slotkin wrote. Making the changes in the aftermath of the Nassar case, she added, would “show that we have not learned from this tragedy, but rather ignored it.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) signed on to a letter last November calling the proposed rule “a blatant attempt to silence survivors of sexual harassment and violence and force them back into the shadows.”

Freshman U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester) has a seat on the House committee that oversees the Education Department. Stevens told the Michigan Advance in a recent interview that she’s looking forward to DeVos’ first appearance before that committee.

Stevens didn’t address the Title IX rule specifically, but said she wants to ask DeVos, “Why did she continue to stand by policies that have repeatedly shown that they fail our public schools and our students?”

DeVos will appear on Tuesday before another House panel, an appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Education Department’s budget.

The U.S. Education Department is now reviewing the public comments it received on the sexual misconduct proposal, according to a department spokesman.

A final rule that takes those comments into account could be published in the coming months.

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.

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