NEW YORK ― Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) urged Secretary of Education Betsy Devos last week to reverse a decision her department made last month that would impede its ability to investigate campus sexual assault.
The head of the Department of Education’s civil rights office, Candice Jackson, issued a memo in June instructing staff to scale back their investigations of systemic civil rights issues at public schools and universities, including the mishandling of sexual assault cases. Whereas the Obama administration required staff to review past information along with each complaint to identify potential systemic problems with how campuses handle rape cases or discriminate against certain classes of victims, the Trump administration will scrap those rules and investigate each complaint at face value.
Gillibrand and McCaskill, the latter of whom is a former prosecutor, are concerned that if the administration handles complaints on a case-by-case basis, rather than considering a school’s broader history of dealing with sexual assault, it will allow schools to continue to sweep the problem under the rug rather then forcing them to overhaul their policies. Title IX federal law requires the government to protect women at publicly funded schools from sex discrimination, including assault and harassment.
“Far too often, when cases of mismanagement are brought to light, it is part of a larger pattern that includes a campus climate where victims are afraid to come forward and the institution has systemically discouraged reporting and failed to prevent these crimes,” the senators wrote in a letter to DeVos. “OCR’s decision to only address the specific complaint fails to protect all students as required by Title IX.”
Jackson explained in the June memo that her decision to limit the scope of campus sexual assault investigations is necessary in order to clear backlogs of complaints, which skyrocketed under President Barack Obama, and move through them more quickly.
While Obama had made combatting campus sexual assault a signature issue of his administration, DeVos’ hiring of Jackson to oversee sexual assault complaints signaled a move in the opposite direction. Jackson, a longtime anti-feminist activist, has suggested over the years that she is skeptical of women who report being assaulted. She said in a Facebook post during Trump’s campaign that the more than a dozen women accusing him of sexual assault were “fake victims” lying “for political gain.” And in her 2005 book, Their Lives: The Women Targeted by the Clinton Machine, she lamented that laws against sexual harassment ignore “the reality that unwanted sexual advances are difficult to define.”
Under Jackson’s leadership, the DOE Office for Civil Rights is beginning to scale back the government’s role in enforcing civil rights laws, including those pertaining to sexual assault. The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget requested to decrease the investigations staff by more than 40 employees, and Jackson has decided to hide the list of schools being investigated by the federal government for mishandling rape cases. Now, the process of investigating campus sexual assault will be much less transparent, the government will commit fewer resources to it, and investigators will not be required to look broadly into systemic problems at particular institutions.
Gillibrand and McCaskill said that if the department is worried about the backlog of complaints, they should clear it by hiring more investigators rather than reducing the government’s capacity to handle the influx of cases.
“The goal of the OCR must be to protect students and ensure that they are provided a safe and equitable educational experience,” they wrote. “We believe that limiting investigations into campus sexual assault is an improper way to clear the current backlog and does not uphold the Department’s responsibility to enforce Title IX.”
Campus sexual assault survivors tweeted at DeVos on Thursday in protest.