On September 22, the rights of student victims of sexual violence took a step backward.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced major changes to guidance aimed at schools responding to and investigating sexual assault and Title IX violations. These changes will be detrimental to efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault in educational institutions.
Sexual violence is a serious and widespread problem. But it is preventable—and that should be our goal in schools, college campuses and in our communities.
In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has taken steps to strengthen prevention efforts and enhance the ability of our schools to response to allegations of abuse. We applaud Gov. Wolf and the many universities who remain committed to preventing campus sexual assault and enhancing their ability to respond to victims. Many campuses recognize that preventing & responding to sexual abuse in the campus community is simply the right thing to do.
Prior to the 2011 Title IX sexual violence guidance, victims were often ignored and campus sexual assault was in the shadows. As a society, we were accustomed to allowing students survivors to bear the brunt of the pain, cost and educational impact of sexual violence.
In 2011, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter to schools, reminding them of their Title IX obligations and outlining core Title IX compliance requirements. This guidance held K-12 schools, colleges, and universities accountable for timely responses to sexual assault—recognizing that sexual assault is a form of sex discrimination and can interfere with a person’s equal access to educational programs and activities. To these critical ends, the Dear Colleague Letter established a framework for reports to be received, investigated, and resolved in a timely, fair, and impartial manner for all parties in educational institutions.
We must not go back.
Sexual victimization is already grossly underreported. Over 80% of college students do not formally report their victimization to school authorities and the rates of false reporting are very low for sexual assault: between 2 and 10%, according to multiple studies including one by the FBI.
The actions taken on Friday only further discourage prevention efforts on campuses and student victims from reporting assaults, making our campuses less safe and our loved ones more at-risk. All students have the right to an education free from sexual harassment and violence.
We call on federal, state and local policy makers to hold institutions accountable and strengthen systemic responses to sexual assault, including but not limited to, the criminal justice system.
And we call on you to value the safety of our students—our loved ones.
Together, we can end sexual violence.