Did Betsy DeVos hurt sexual assault survivors by agreeing to hear “both sides”?


Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos landed in hot water earlier this week when word got out that she would meet with men’s rights activists to hear their side of the story when it comes to campus sexual assault.

The optics of the meeting only grew worse when Candice Jackson, the acting head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, told the New York Times that she believes 90% of accusations of assault “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.’”

Despite the backlash, DeVos moved forward with the meetings.

According to the Washington Post, DeVos held “listening sessions” Thursday with one panel of sexual assault survivors and another panel of parents and students advocating for the accused. DeVos also met with a third panel on Thursday, which was comprised of representatives from universities across the country as well as experts and lawyers who deal in Title IX cases.

“All their stories are important,” DeVos told reporters Thursday.

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Naomi Shatz, an attorney from a Boston firm that represents both survivors and the accused, who sat on the latter panel, agrees.

“I think it is important to talk to both sides to the students that are impacted and to the lawyers that represent them,” Shatz said in a Friday phone interview. “I know the groups she spoke to have other political agendas ... that I certainly don’t agree with, and I don’t know if she should hear those specific point of views, but speaking to the people who are in the trenches is important.”

But many feminists and advocates for sexual assault victims have suggested that when it comes to campus assault, “hearing both sides” usually benefits the accused.

In an opinion piece for Broadly, Sejal Singh, who works for a rape victim advocacy organization, called DeVos’ meetings with the MRA groups “a slap in the face to survivors.”

Singh pointed out that DeVos deliberately disinvited her organization, Know Your IX, after the group penned a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post, accusing the Trump administration of trying to sweep Title IX investigations under the rug. In their place, DeVos added groups like the National Coalition for Men, Families Advocating for Campus Equality, and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments to the listening sessions, all of which lobby against survivors’ rights and protections.

“The fact that Secretary DeVos is giving student survivors the cold shoulder while reaching out to groups like NCM, FACE and SAVE gives credence to a suspicion I’ve had for a while: the Trump administration’s concern with Title IX is rooted in misogyny,” Singh wrote.

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Shatz said the media has turned campus sexual assault into a “polarized topic” with feminists on one side, and MRAs on the other. In reality, Shatz said, there’s more agreement than you would think.

“If you actually talk to people doing this work, who understand Title IX, there is no conflict between vigorously enforcing Title IX rights and providing fair processes,” she said. “It will allow schools to better address sexual assault and get results that are more reliable and that people will accept because the process itself seems fair.”

The big question though, Shatz said, is how to create that fair process. That’s the part not everyone can agree on.

Shatz said if universities are going to continue pursuing punitive systems for addressing campus sexual assault — as opposed to restorative justice ones, which she said she believes hold promise — it would behoove them to more closely mimic the criminal justice system. Though she acknowledged that the system is certainly flawed, and has certain prejudices and biases embedded within it, Shatz said the protections it offers both victims and the accused are crucial for a fair process.

“How do we deal with these situations when they pop up on campus?” Shatz said. “How do we do it in a way that everyone can accept and agree is fair? The secretary didn’t give any indication into what her thinking is on this but hopefully she learned a lot from the people there doing this for years about what is working and what’s not working.”

Singh, however, argued that by taking into account the opinions of MRAs and others who jeopardize the rights of survivors, DeVos has already sabotaged any chance at establishing the “fair process” people like Shatz hope for.

“Their actions don’t reflect a principled commitment to fair process: They reflect a willingness to entertain the same, tired misogyny that survivors have faced since the dawn of time,” she said.