Ailts: Changes to sexual assault policies loom

As Betsy DeVos reviews Title IX, campus sexual assault may be dismissed and overlooked.

Ellen Ailts

There are few issues more contentious and polarizing on college campuses than sexual assault.

Acts of sexual misconduct are notoriously prevalent, and yet underreported, on college campuses, with most abusers ultimately facing no punishment as a result. Even though one in five college women will be victims of some form of sexual assault by the time they graduate, according to RTI International, 95 percent of female college students don’t report their assaults, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

While these figures are staggering, the issue becomes prickly and controversial when the issue of false accusations is introduced. It is almost impossible to assess the rate of false accusations. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the national rate falls somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent, but some reports claim the rate is higher, some lower. The fact is, there is simply no consensus on the prevalence of false accusations, especially on college campuses — but where does this leave us?

Betsy DeVos is doing work to review Title IX and the Obama administration’s policies regarding how to handle sexual assault on college campuses. DeVos has spoken to many accused students about how being branded an abuser has affected them, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this — but to sympathize with an abuser because a football career was ended or a scholarship was lost is ludicrous.

Of course, anyone wrongfully accused of sexual assault absolutely deserves sympathy and retribution, and false-accusers should be ashamed that they ruined a life while making people skeptical of real victims. However, it seems that DeVos and Candice Jackson are sympathizing heavily with one side; after meeting with accused students, Jackson stated that “[the] accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

Jackson has since attempted to rescind her statement, but her callousness and carelessness is deeply troubling, especially if she considers herself a representative of her department’s stance on the matter. Forget how infrequently campus sexual assaults are reported, or how many abusers face any form of punishment — to say 90 percent of those who do come forward are lying is bolstering a deeply insidious cultural narrative.

At the University of Minnesota, new initiatives were implemented by President Eric Kaler earlier this year to change the culture and practices surrounding sexual assault, including using better tools to collect data about campus assault and mandating sexual assault training for all faculty and staff. This is an important and necessary step, especially in the wake of the Gophers football boycott and the alleged sexual assaults that occurred in frat houses during the 2016-17 school year.

However, other colleges and universities shouldn’t wait until a sexual assault scandal inevitably forces a reexamination of their policies for PR reasons — institutions of higher education should listen to their students now and give credence to the stories of survivors. If DeVos is seriously considering undoing the work of the Obama administration and the guidelines of Title IX, we should seriously consider what message that sends to victims of sexual assault, and how her decision could potentially fuel corrosive, frustratingly familiar victim-blaming narratives.