U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced last week her intent to roll back current Title IX policy, threatening years of work by students and campuses to fight rape culture. National discourse about sexual harassment is moving backwards, and the UC system and UC Berkeley campus cannot be complacent.
Student advocates, in the wake of botched handlings of sexual harassment cases and a dearth of fair and equitable practices on college campuses, fought an uphill battle to drive the creation of new policies and resources that better support survivors. But there is still much work to be done, and now that load has increased tenfold, because the federal government holds enormous clout in sexual violence narratives.
Instead of recognizing the need to continue to push a culture shift that better supports victims of sexual assault who are systematically neglected and discouraged from reporting their rapes, DeVos continues to equate new protections for survivors as attacks on due process for the accused.
DeVos said at George Mason University last week that “One assault is one too many, one aggressive act of harassment is one too many, one person denied due process is one too many.” This feeds into a false equivalency.
Historically, processes for the survivor and the accused have been entirely unequal, with survivors horribly disadvantaged. This discrepancy came roaring to the public light in Berkeley, where communities continue a slow healing process from a slew of high–profile sexual misconduct coverups: the system is clearly not where it needs to be.
Moreover, there is no epidemic of false accusations bereft of due process. The biggest problem isn’t that a mere 2 percent to 10 percent of accusations are false, but that so many more just go unreported every single day.
Meghan Warner, who was one of 31 UC Berkeley students who filed a Title IX complaint against the school in 2014, says DeVos’ “both sides” argument cherry-picks stories to support a false but long-prevailing sexist narrative. And UC Berkeley Title IX officer Denise Oldham points to the campus’s newer confidential services, which support both survivors and the accused equally.
UC policies are too new for DeVos to call Title IX a “failed system,” and her reliance on sparse anecdotal allegations is insufficient to do away with guidelines set out by the Obama administration’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter.
Obama’s letter set the stage for more institutionalized investigation procedures, resulting in clearer, highly documented reports. Title IX reports have formed the basis for the public’s best understanding of who on campus has been found to have violated UC sexual misconduct policy.
A few years ago, a combination of the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, complaints filed by students under Title IX and the Clery Act, and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act forced the UC system to reevaluate and significantly improve policies. UC Berkeley’s Title IX office received a $2.5 million investment last year, and staff increased to nine full-time employees by 2016, up from one in 2011. Continuing to dedicate resources is important, especially as the campus begins to look at implementing new procedures for faculty and examines added prevention training.
Without the federal government urging UC to be better, it’ll have to do what it should have been doing the whole time: seek out and listen to survivors and sexual assault activists. For every step backward the federal government takes, UC Berkeley must take a thousand steps forward in its effort to strengthen protections for survivors.