One day after her agency’s civil rights chief apologized for joking that most campus rape claims amount to two young people who are “both drunk,” U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the department should more equally weigh the claims of assault victims and the due-process rights of the accused.
“All their stories are important," said DeVos, speaking to reporters moments after she met with both victims and a handful of those who say they have been wrongly accused.
“No student should be the victim of sexual assault," she said. "No student should feel unsafe. No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel that the scales are tipped against him or her. We need to get this right.”
DeVos said the stories of sexual assault she heard Thursday “reminded me of the disgusting behavior of some in our society. We must expect more of our young men and women.”
While she acknowledged that colleges can’t go back to the days when allegations were "swept under the rug,” she said of those claiming to be wrongly accused of sexual assault, “It was clear that their stories are not often told.”
Advocates representing this group have suggested that Obama-era civil rights guidance weighted campus justice systems in favor of those alleging sexual violence. Many of those who want Obama's guidance reversed have said they want assault cases referred to law enforcement, not campus officials or investigators.
As of Wednesday, there were 344 open sexual violence investigations at 242 post-secondary schools, according to a Title IX report provided by the Education Department. Several schools had multiple cases pending, including Kansas State University and Indiana University at Bloomington with five each, the department list shows.
Baylor University in Texas had a single open case. The school has been embroiled in controversy over its handling of sexual assault allegations, and several women have sued. Art Briles was fired as football coach and Kenneth Starr was demoted from president, and later resigned altogether, after a law firm reported in May 2016 that an investigation had found that the school had "created barriers" discouraging the reporting of sexual assaults.
Starr led the investigation that ended in the 1999 impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the wake of his sexual encounters with intern Monica Lewinsky.
In an interview with The New York Times earlier this week, Candice Jackson, DeVos’ assistant secretary for civil rights, said 90% of campus sexual assault claims “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 on Wednesday apologized for the remark, calling it "flippant." She said the department believes that "all sexual harassment and sexual assault must be taken seriously."
Jackson apologized again Thursday to victims who were meeting with DeVos.
But Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center and an attendee at the meeting, told The Associated Press, "As much as I appreciate apologies, which are difficult, unfortunately, there's no way to take it back. It's out there."
Graves added, "What's extremely important now is that they do the hard work to counter those sorts of rape myths. They need to explicitly reject them."
Sen. Patty Murray, the senior Democrat on the Senate committee overseeing the Education Department, said in a letter to DeVos that Jackson's remark "suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of campus sexual assault and suggests that (Jackson's office) is not prepared to take accounts from survivors seriously," AP reported.
DeVos said it was too early to offer detailed recommendations or guidance on new policies, saying the sessions “were a time to listen and to continue to listen.”
She noted Jackson’s apology, but when asked if the comment reflected her point of view, DeVos said simply, “We are listening and we know that this policy has not worked in too many ways and in too many places, and we need to get it right.”
Asked about critics' complaints that “men’s rights” groups shift the blame for sexual assault to victims or invite harassment of them, DeVos said, “That’s not what I heard today.”
DeVos, who was sitting down with reporters at the department's headquarters for the first time since she took office last February, also dodged a question about whether working for President Trump, who in 2005 admitted to unwanted sexual advances on women, makes it harder for her to make progress on the topic.
In the well-known Access Hollywood tape, released last October during the presidential race, Trump told the show’s host that being “a star” allowed him to grab women by the genitals. “You can do anything.”
Trump later apologized, saying, “I’ve said some things that I regret and the words released today on this more-than-a-decade-old video are one of them.”
During her Senate confirmation hearing last January, DeVos told lawmakers that the actions Trump described in the video amounted to sexual assault.
On Thursday, DeVos said the department’s focus “is on doing what’s right for students, and that’s my commitment.”
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