The Department of Education, Title IX, #DearBetsy, and You

Activist organizations have relaunched their #DearBetsy campaign in an effort to get the Secretary to realize the importance of the legislation and policies and to enforce them to the fullest extent. – Julia Dixon, Survivor & PAVE Ambassador

What’s going on?

The Department of Education (ED) and it’s Trump-appointed and Senate-confirmed Secretary, Betsy DeVos, have said and done some things recently that have raised concerns from anti-sexual violence activists, organizations, and those who support them. Among these, there is a fear that the ED will stop enforcing parts of Title IX, including publishing the names of schools under current Title IX investigations as well as the outcomes of those investigations. Part of this is because the head of the Civil Rights Department of ED, Candice Jackson, has gone on the record to say some disturbing things in general, and specifically about sexual assault survivors that are incorrect. They also plan to meet with organizations touting these incorrect statistics. Furthermore, activists are worried that the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) will stop being enforced. Activist organizations have relaunched their #DearBetsy campaign in an effort to get the Secretary to realize the importance of the legislation and policies and to enforce them to the fullest extent.

Ok, what is the background?

Publishing the names of the schools under investigation was a huge win for sexual violence survivors and activists during the Obama administration, amidst the broader push for better Title IX enforcement. The success was twofold: it allowed prospective/current students, parents, and other vested parties to see if schools they were interested in had any violations, and it also encouraged schools to improve their policies and responses before an investigation concluded. This in turn expedited shifts at schools to better help survivors and to implement best practices quickly. While the Obama administration did not create new laws per se, the 2011 DCL simply reminded all schools receiving federal funding (almost every school except a handful) to adhere to and apply Title IX regulations including in issues regarding sexual violence.

For example, the 2011 DCL is often cited as the reason that the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard is a best practice and used on most colleges when investigating sexual violence issues nationwide, however this policy was in place long before the 2011 DCL; the letter simply reiterated it. Indeed, nearly 80% of colleges already used this standard before the letter was written. While Title IX, the Clery Act, and by proxy the 2011 DCL may not be actively removed as laws, activist organizations fear that the ED and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) may nonetheless stop investigating complaints and enforcing them. That’s the real issue that’s at stake here. The plea of many activists during the Obama administration was to “give Title IX teeth”, or to actually enforce the rights given by Title IX. And in some ways, they succeeded. The worst thing the ED could do now would be to backtrack this progress.

Wait, I thought this was already law. So what’s the issue?

It is the law. But if laws aren’t enforced, what good are they? Before the 2011 DCL and the public push by activists to bring these issues out of the shadows, there was very little—if anything—done about schools that did not follow the laws and recommendations. Even now, after 50 years, the maximum punishment under Title IX has never been implemented despite egregious failings at a number of universities. That’s why it’s important that not only do these recommendations stay in the books, but they are properly investigated and enforced when schools are found not to be adhering to them. Activists are afraid that by foregoing enforcement, schools will not be held accountable for their policies—or lack thereof—yet again.

Think of it this way: when you buy a pack of gum, you expect a certain conformity of quality. You expect every pack from that company to be pretty much the same. It wouldn’t be fair if certain packs that should be the same were better or different than others. The Clery Act, as a consumer protection law, provides the same kind of assurance to college students. You are the ‘consumer’ of an education, and schools have an obligation to make sure people are getting roughly the same benefits (within reason)! These include equal access to an education regardless of gender, and since rape is usually a gender-based crime, it hinders that access. This benefit is not just an expectation, it’s a right, and our federal laws have reflected this for decades. It’s not new, and despite what some would have you believe, the Obama administration didn’t ‘create’ it. Sadly, what is new is the enforcement, and that’s what activists are now fighting to maintain. If enforcement falls to the wayside, so does adherence.

What can I do to make sure Title IX is applied and enforced? How can I get involved?

Great question! The easiest way is to continue to educate your peers about the importance of Title IX and what is at stake if its enforcement is lost. You can do this through conversation, disseminating articles such as this one, and/or using the #DearBetsy hashtag on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to tell Betsy DeVos and the ED why Title IX is important to you. You can also sign up for our newsletter to keep up-to-date on everything PAVE is doing to protect survivors and help them thrive. You can also donate or become a PAVE member today to be part of our legacy of survivor support and help us expand our reach even further. The fight for equal rights, justice, and ending gender-based violence does not end today, but it starts here— with all of us, right now.

Helpful links and definitions

Title IX: an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title IX was added to this Act in 1972, stating that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” While primarily used to ensure equal access to overall education and sports between men and women, Title IX also holds protections against gender-based crimes, including rape and sexual assault.

Clery Act: Signed into law in 1990, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act amended the Higher Education Act of 1965. In general, the Clery Act requires all colleges receiving federal funding to keep and disclose information regarding crimes on and around campus and release this information every October 1st. This information includes a daily crime log, timely warnings for crises on campuses, statistics for myriad of crimes, and a list of specific campus safety policies.

2011 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL): Delivered to every college in the country on April 4, 2011, the Dear Colleague Letter reiterated schools’ obligations to properly investigate and, if needed, adjudicate reports of sexual violence. The letter also stipulated a 60-day timeframe for this investigation and other various requirements schools must follow to comply with Title IX, including using a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard for adjudications. The letter, while not creating any new rules, did reverify the importance of previous regulations.

Julia Dixon is a survivor of sexual assault in college, PAVE Ambassador and national speaker.