On Thursday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced her intentions to repeal Obama-era protections for victims of sexual assault on college campuses. Specifically, she targeted a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter that established a lowered evidentiary standard for college rape hearings.
Title IX gives the federal government the authority to deny funding to schools that discriminate on the basis of gender, but the statute has morphed with judicial interpretation into an accountability system for colleges in their handling of sexual assault.
DeVos’ rejection of this system — which she claims is motivated by a desire to ensure equal rights “on both sides” — ignores the reality of sexual assault and further abandons survivors already left in the lurch by our justice system.
DeVos’ argument for repealing the “preponderance of the evidence” standard relies on the assumption that assailants are disenfranchised because schools inflict punishments without holding them to the same standards used in the justice system. Proponents of DeVos’ move demand that colleges hold their disciplinary courts to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal courts.
Opponents of the lowered standard say that colleges should not be in the business of prosecuting sexual assault — they should leave it to the justice system. Yet this assumption ignores the fact that our justice system historically fails victims of sexual assault.
Only 31 percent of survivors report to the police. Only 1.1 percent ever go to court. Only .6 percent of rapists will ever be convicted. Yet experts agree that only between 2 and 10 percent of assault claims are false.
The argument that rape doesn’t belong in a college hearing relies on the assumption that rape doesn’t affect university life. Over 23 percent of female students experience sexual assault. At UT, 15 percent of female undergraduates have been assaulted. At least nine percent of victims took time off of school after their assaults, while five percent had to drop at least one class.
Rape hurts a university’s culture and its success as a learning institution.
The “preponderance of the evidence” standard in university hearings reflects the severity of the hearing’s consequences compared to a criminal court. Being suspended from your elite university is not the same as prison time. Being expelled is not the same as becoming a registered sex offender.
Expelling or suspending accused assailants doesn’t play the same role as conviction in a criminal court. Schools oversee the creation of a safe learning environment — not criminal punishment — and victims cannot prosper when they’re forced to coexist with their rapists.
Further, we only argue about the due process rights of accused rapists. Many schools — including the University of Texas — use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard in disciplinary hearings for all student conduct violations. Yet no one rallies on behalf of the rights of accused cheaters or vandals who are expelled in much higher numbers than accused rapists. We tend to believe their accusers when they come forward.
The “preponderance of the evidence” standard was established for a reason. Emphasizing the problem of potential discrimination against the accused reflects a warped worldview that prioritizes the rights of rapists over the rights of their victims. This is not the central problem facing our universities, yet the Department of Education acts as though it is.
Yes, our system is broken. Fix it. Create a justice system that convicts more than .6 percent of rapists. Create a culture that cares about survivors. Stop pretending this is about equality.
Anderson is a Plan II and history sophomore from Houston. Follow her on Twitter @lizabeen.