By: Laura Fitzgerald
Fem Dems Contributing Writer
As a recent UC Davis undergraduate, I along with a handful of my friends experienced instances of sexual assault during our four years on campus. While the experiences are in every way disturbing, the truly unacceptable fact is that there is nothing unique about a female student who suffers inappropriate sexual conduct - it has and will continue to happen to millions of women at universities throughout the nation for years to come. One in five female and one in 16 male college students are sexually assaulted. Additionally, 90 percent of sexual assault victims choose not to report the occurrence according to the National Sexual Violence Center. We know that cases of sexual assault are not in any way uncommon, particularly for women on college campuses.
These are disheartening facts, especially when just last week The U.S. Department of Education announced in a “Dear Colleague” letter that it will be rescinding Title IX protections from the Obama administration. Title IX is the law that requires equality between male and female students in educational programs that receive federal funding. While Title IX regulates equal treatment of boys and girls in school-related programs, it also plays a large role in guiding how school campuses address cases of sexual assault.
A 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter written by the Office for Civil Rights argues that the “preponderance of evidence” standard is the most appropriate threshold of evidence to use when investigating cases of alleged sexual assault and violence. Schools throughout the nation have adopted this standard of evidence when assessing sexual assault allegations rather than a “clear and convincing evidence” or “beyond reasonable doubt” standard under the Obama administration. Moving forward, however, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been clear that she believes in raising the standard for evidence and protecting the rights of those that have been accused.
While every individual is entitled to due process, this regression of Title IX protections for students will place an undue hurdle in the path of sexual assault victims that report their experiences. The rollbacks proposed by the current leadership of the U.S. Department of Education disregard a critical aspect of sexual assault cases: they often happen behind closed doors, void of witnesses and documentation. The majority of victims only have their word if they do decide to come forward to report their assault. What options will these victims have in addressing their cases if they only have their side of the story? Not many. Increasing the threshold for what constitutes as evidence and moving away from the “preponderance of evidence” standard will mean that a sexual assault victim’s word may not qualify as enough evidence when these cases are addressed on school campuses.
This raises a serious question as to how victims of sexual assault will be able to seek justice. A victim’s decision of whether or not to bring light to the fact they were assaulted is not an easy one. Confusion, fear, shame, all haunt those who have been assaulted. Reporting requires them to relive the painful details of when and how they were senselessly violated by another. These victims need protections. These individuals deserve for their stories to be heard and given appropriate consideration when they are forced to carry the burden of their assault for years to come.
Society has been exposed to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses with a handful of cases that have received national media attention in recent years including Emma Sulkowicz and her visual art performance “Carry That Weight” at Columbia University in 2014 and the case of Brock Turner at Stanford University in 2015. However, our community is not free from similarly dire situations. The Sacramento region is home to thousands of college students with UC Davis and Sacramento State on either side of the causeway. The recent actions of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will tangibly affect our friends and neighbors that are sexual assault survivors, hindering them from seeking justice during their most vulnerable time.
Since President Trump’s poorly attended inauguration, many California lawmakers have dug their heels in, responding to this administration’s rhetoric and advocating for protections for immigrants, the environment, accessible health care, and more. California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, introduced SB 169 earlier this year to protect California’s students from, at that time, potential Title IX rollbacks. If signed by Governor Brown, the bill will maintain Title IX standards from the Obama era for schools throughout California. Given the recent action taken by the U.S. Department of Education, this could be one of the most important bills pending the Governor’s approval for students throughout the state, particularly female college students.
Indeed, every student deserves a learning environment free from the threat of sexual harassment, assault, and violence, but we know that no campus can guarantee this protection. For this reason, it is essential that educational institutions recognize their responsibility of ensuring that comprehensive protections are in place to guard the voices of sexual assault victims everywhere. Without justice, horrifying instances of sexual assault will continue to occur. Our nation’s policies must encourage victims to come forward so that our society can better address this rampant issue. Sadly, this action taken by Secretary Betsy DeVos is an unbearably large step in the wrong direction.
*I’ve written this piece as a reflection of my own opinion. It is not affiliated with my work for the California State Legislature.