Bears. Yachts. Charter schools. Heiress. These are some of the keywords that will pop up if you type “Betsy DeVos” into a search engine. Who could forget the many Hallmark Channel moments stamping DeVos’s time in the spotlight? From the comically bad performance in her confirmation hearings to the “we need guns in schools to protect the students from bears” moment. DeVos has been mired in controversy before and after taking on her role as secretary of education for the Trump Administration.
It can be traced back to her nomination, with pundits sounding the alarm, calling her unqualified for the position. Since taking office, DeVos hasn’t exactly proved them wrong.
Her term has been a fever dream of destructive policy and flat-out embarrassing moments for the press to eat up. What else can you expect from a woman whose solution to the decline in public education is to cut its funding? The latest controversy to erupt in Betsy’s tour of despair arrived last Wednesday, as the New York Times reported a rollback on Obama-era Title IX policy towards campus sexual assault.
According to the report from the Times, the new policies will “narrow the definition of sexual harassment, holding schools accountable only for formal complaints filed through proper authorities and for conduct said to have occurred on their campuses. They would also establish a higher legal standard to determine whether schools improperly addressed complaints.”
There’s a whole lot to unpack in that statement. The “narrow the definition of sexual harassment” tidbit is particularly glaring, so let’s identify exactly what it means. The definition of sexual harassment is taken from the Supreme Court, defined as, “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person access to the school’s education program or activity.” Compare that to the previous definition of “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment…”
There’s a bit of a gap in severity between the two definitions, right? The new definition leaves a pretty large gray area for what is and isn’t sexual harassment. The “conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive...” section of the definition in particular leaves a lot of breathing room for potential abuse, something I find absolutely heinous. This isn’t about the so-called punishing of men for flirting that so often gets thrown around by men’s rights activists. An unwanted sexual advance is an unwanted sexual advance. If you can’t tell the difference between that and flirting, then you’re in dire need of rethinking your choices and some disciplinary action.
Another contentious change in the Title IX policy comes from the limiting of the accountability of the school based on the location of the misconduct. Simply put, if the incident doesn’t happen on campus, the new policy allows the school to remain off the hook for it. On paper this might seem reasonable, but you’ve got to think in the wider scheme of things. Off campus events, sporting events, frat parties, etc., these are all situations where harassment and assault can and often does happen. This is also inconsiderate to those students living off campus, which, according to the steadfast-as-always New York Times, make up 87 percent of college attendees.
Let’s take a look at a disturbing—and not unrealistic—hypothetical situation. A male student begins making moves on a female classmate. It seems harmless enough at first; the female student respectfully rebukes his advances, but he doesn’t stop. The frequency and explicit nature of the advances increase. The female student begins fearing for her safety. Tragically, she’s correct to feel fear, as the male student follows her back to her apartment off-campus and assaults her. Under the new policy, the school would have no obligation to take any action; as it happened outside of campus. This would lead to the victim having to keep taking the same class as her abuser or drop it and face the consequences.
Is it okay for a college to excuse abhorrent behavior from students and faculty members because it happened Off-campus? No. There’s no dancing around the issue on this subject. Limiting accountability of the schools based on geography isn’t simply anti-victim, it’s anti-student.
Betsy DeVos has pushed a lot of bad policy in her role as secretary of education. Apart from the previously mentioned changes, the Title IX changes include, but are not limited to: lacking a definition for what is a hostile environment, limiting who complaints can be filed to, recommending cross-examining periods between the accuser and the accused and allowing schools to choose what evidence standard to apply when determining whether or not to punish accused individuals.
Like most of her fellow Trump admin cabinet members, Betsy DeVos is someone whose views and actions run seemingly antithetical to the role of her station. Her callous favor of charter schools over public is cold and inefficient, but ultimately a drop in the bucket of cruelty compared to these Title IX changes. DeVos herself claims that the rollback is reasonable. That they are in place to establish due process for the accused. In this case, due process for the accused feels a lot more like silence for the accuser.