A US Department of Education official has apologized for characterizing “90 percent” of campus rape allegations as situations in which both parties were “drunk.” Candice Jackson, who leads the Office of Civil Rights in the education department, made her comments last week when it was reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would meet with advocacy groups, families, and university officials impacted by campus sexual assault—including students who claimed to have been falsely accused of rape.
Even though Jackson has since called her statement “flippant” and acknowledged that “all sexual harassment and sexual assault must be taken seriously,” the offensiveness of her remarks prompted the Washington Post to call for her resignation. As the paper editorialized, “Having expressed her true opinion, she needs to resign. There are complex and arguable questions to be sorted out in the area of how sexual assaults on campus should be policed and punished. But someone who doesn’t think sexual assault on campus is a real problem in the first place is not qualified to do that sorting.”
The Post is right. It’s bad enough that myths about sexual assault on campus persist. Namely, that instances of sexual assault in which alcohol played a role do not constitute assault, they are instead consensual sexual activities between friends or acquaintances that are later characterized as assault in regret-filled morning-afters. But students who are survivors of sexual assault on campus, and those who have been accused of assault deserve to be taken seriously by the institutions in place to educate and serve them: schools and the Department of Education.
Most victims of rape on campus (70%) are assaulted by a friend or acquaintance, according to a 2015 survey of more than 150,000 students by the Association of American Universities (AAU). More than one in 10 (11.7%) of student respondents reported having experienced nonconsensual sexual contact. The number jumps to nearly one in four (23.1%) among female students, and those “identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, [or] questioning.” Incapacitation due to alcohol or drugs was a factor in a “significant percentage” of sexual assaults.
Clearly, campus sexual assault is a serious problem that needs the attention of university leaders who will put systems and programs in place that increase the safety of all students. It also requires government enforcement of Title IX, a 1972 law mandating equal access to educational opportunities regardless of sex.
In April, the AAU released an extensive report assessing the impact of the Obama Administration’s decision in 2011 to begin enforcing Title IX violations related to students’ unequal access to education due to widespread sexual assault and misconduct on campuses. The organization surveyed 55 of the 62 leading research universities that make up its membership and found that all of them had “developed, redefined, or enhanced programs to assist victims of sexual assault and misconduct” since 2011. Additionally, 95 percent are coordinating data-sharing among college departments, including public safety departments, to more effectively address sexual assault on campus, and more than 90 percent have increased resources to support victims and train students and staff.
Despite this progress, it makes sense to further assess the impact of Title IX enforcement for improvement, as DeVos says she is doing. Despite the criticism DeVos received for meeting with students who say that they have been falsely accused of rape, there is nothing wrong with her decision to do so in order to better understand what is happening on campuses. But, there is something deeply wrong when those in position to enforce Title IX align themselves with the tired, outdated, misogyny-drenched narrative that victims lie about sexual assault. DeVos and Jackson can claim otherwise, but Jackson’s self-described “flippant” remark unintentionally revealed that that is precisely the narrative the new leadership at the Department of Education may be embracing.
When properly implemented, the 2011 Title IX Guidance appropriately safeguards the rights of both survivor students and accused students. Everyone loses when the government refuses to hold offenders accountable and when schools fail to create safe and equitable learning environments for all students.
Gina Scaramella is the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.