Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

Let's Talk About Sexual Assault

Few would contest that sexual assault is an issue on college campuses, but strategies to protect the rights of both victims and the accused remain controversial. During his presidency, Obama launched the "It's On Us" campaign to combat what he called "an affront to our basic humanity." Now, under the new administration, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is revisiting the issue and recently announced her plan to repeal Obama's initiatives. Some fear has circulated concerning the assertions she made in her September 7 speech, which undermined previous efforts to empower victims. In fact, her initiative places great emphasis on protecting the rights of those accused of misconduct, while simultaneously forging avenues that secure justice for victims. Such a shift leads college students to question how these policies will influence the way in which rape is handled on college campuses, and how this will compare to the varying success of recent years.

In her speech at George Mason University, DeVos said, "This conversation has too often been framed as a contest between men and women or the rights of sexual misconduct survivors and the due process rights of accused students. The reality is, however, a different picture. There are men and women, boys and girls, who are survivors, and there are men and women, boys and girls, who are wrongfully accused."

Her statement highlights a conflict that arose in recent years following the more stringent protection of victims' rights: As campus administrators strove to protect one vulnerable population, they failed another, creating a system of overcompensation and reversed bias. That DeVos made mention of male victims and female perpetrators, despite the usual focus on the opposite scenario, demonstrating her willingness to create policies founded upon gender equality. Her overall  willingness to address campus assault helped to validate its importance, but unfortunately this was the extent of her positive contribution to the vital issue.

DeVos proposed a movement away from the involvement of schools in criminal proceedings against the accused, instead entrusting the Center (described as "a voluntary, opt-in" organization in which "professionally-trained experts handle Title IX investigations and adjudications") to work with local law enforcement and the state. Their role would be to "collect and preserve forensic evidence, facilitate—but never require—criminal prosecutions, and apply fair investigative techniques to gather and evaluate all relevant evidence," DeVos explained. This practice would ensure that no student is assumed guilty until proven innocent. While in theory effective, such a policy ignores the lack of tangible proof in many cases, and would likely lower the already low reporting rate of sexual assault, given that victims would further anticipate the hardships involved in bringing forth evidence. By removing the role of the university as an intermediary between students and the legal system, this policy would force students to rely solely on local law enforcement, making it more difficult to protect a victim's privacy.

DeVos also stated the need for preventing misconduct rather than simply reacting to it, yet she neglected to outline an initiative for educating students on campuses. In recent years, as a response to national dialogues concerning the problem, many colleges have made sexual assault prevention courses mandatory for incoming students. By repealing the Obama administration's sexual assault policies, and failing to implement new systems that would ensure the protection of both victims and the accused, DeVos essentially enforces a system favoring the rights of the accused. Notably, no amount of moving rhetoric about sympathy for victims will effectively protect them under the standards of her new plan.

With the unveiling of Devos’s plan, it is even clearer that changes should be made to the way that colleges address sexual assault. Most schools officially support victims and have avenues for the pursuit of retribution against attackers, but implementation of these systems would prove extremely difficult given the reality of messy circumstances and ambiguous situations. Most likely, such courses of action would result in people who should be punished receiving no recourse, and the wrongly accused facing life-changing disciplinary action.

Boston College is a prime example of such an institution. While BC makes students aware of on-campus resources, including having thorough instructions on its website for what victims of assault can do following an incident, it does so while maintaining intentional ignorance of certain inconvenient truths. Boston College's Sexual Assault Network, SANet, is housed in the Women's Center on campus. Having previously referenced the way that discourse on the subject of sexual assault tends to centralize on the abuse of women and not men, the location of SANet makes it even more contentious for a male student to come forward seeking help. Such barriers harm male victims and perpetuate the gendering of a universal issue regarding violence and personal violation.

BC also harbors an imperfect record against both the victims and accused in cases of sexual assault. According to the Annual Disclosure of Crime Statistics, between 2013 and 2015, there was an annual reported average of 19 on-campus rapes, with an increase in recent years. In 2015, a Boston College graduate served a three semester suspension for sexual assault, even though a local court exonerated him based on clear evidence presented in a lawsuit against the school. The supposed offenses included the violation of national anti-discrimination laws and BC's own policies on sexual-assault. The incongruity between theoretical laws and actual events remains a troubling actuality.

Such facts indicate that regardless of whether or not one agrees with the views DeVos presented on the federal response to campus sexual assault, something must change with how universities respond to cases of misconduct. Sexual assault is the kind of pervasive issue that can never be completely eradicated or ignored, and DeVos's address of it, however flawed, has reignited the dialogue.

Meaningful discussion, especially on the very campuses that lawmakers seek to change, can be just as powerful, if not more so, as any federal or university policy. Sparking positive change in campus cultures around the country is as much a responsibility of administration and lawmakers as it is a student's.

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