Prevent campus sexual assault

Earlier this year, 114 sexual assault survivors, women and men, wrote an open letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos before her confirmation in the Senate, asking her “exactly who are you here to serve?” They wrote, “For us, this is personal, and traumatizing. From the moment we were raped or assaulted, the question of who protects us has haunted us all. …We do not simply represent the failures of the very institutions that are supposed to help us, but the need for strong and clear enforcement of Title IX.” As elected officials, we take seriously our obligation to protect victims of sexual assault.

Since 1972, Title IX has opened doors by requiring that young men and women receive the same opportunities in schools across the country. Today, Title IX helps ensure that victims of sexual assault are treated fairly and in accordance with the law.

Over the past several years, we have made important progress in bringing these victims’ stories out into the open and creating greater transparency about what is happening. In 2010, one of us, Bob Casey, introduced in the Senate the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act, which made important updates to the Clery Act, the landmark campus crime law.

In 2011, the Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to institutions of higher education, reiterating and clarifying their responsibilities under Title IX following the report of a sexual assault. Despite claims to the contrary, the guidance is entirely consistent with longstanding practices at the Department of Education, through multiple administrations from both parties, with respect to civil rights law.

In 2013, the Campus SaVE Act became law as a part of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act and went into full effect in July 2015. The law now requires every institution to have clear guidelines that are shared with the campus community about its policies, including how it will respond to incidents of sexual violence or stalking and what resources are available for survivors. They are also required to conduct prevention activities each year.

When reports first surfaced this summer that Mrs. DeVos might roll back protections for survivors of sexual assault, the other one of us, Josh Shapiro, led a group of 19 fellow state attorneys general and urged the Department of Education to listen to both law enforcement and survivors of sexual assault by keeping these protections in place. Last week, Mrs. DeVos did the opposite.

As colleges and universities were welcoming students to campus, Mrs. DeVos announced that the Department of Education would revise existing Title IX guidance using an extended rulemaking process. This decision is unacceptable. The first six weeks of the academic year — a period we are in now — are known as the “red zone.” These early weeks are when a disproportionate number of rapes and sexual assaults take place. Revisiting the existing protections now demonstrates how little this administration cares for victims of sexual violence.

While we are troubled by Mrs. DeVos’ actions, we are pleased to see colleges across Pennsylvania maintaining rigorous protections for students, in spite of the Department of Education’s actions.

What message is this administration sending to victims? After all the work victims have done to fight for their rights, announcing that the Department of Education will “revisit” its policies designed to protect students is a slap in the face.

One of the women who signed the open letter to Mrs. DeVos, Jess Davidson, wrote that “I haven’t always felt that I had the space or safety to tell my story and stand up for survivors. However, I was lucky enough to attend college under a government administration that fought for survivors of sexual assault. It was only because committed government leaders believed that it was important to uphold Title IX and address campus sexual violence that I was able to overcome what happened to me.” Ms. Davidson wrote that “my education, if not my life, was saved by committed leaders standing up and fighting for the rights of survivors of sexual assault. …Because if survivors do not feel their government is fighting for them, they won’t speak up. I almost didn’t.”

Another survivor, Sofie Karasek, wrote that “our country has finally begun to shatter the silence on sexual violence, and survivors nationwide are refusing to go back to how things were before.”

To Ms. Davidson, Ms. Karasek and the many other survivors out there today worried about the future or feeling like this fight is hopeless: We have your backs. We will continue to speak out against sexual violence and speak up for your rights in the coming fight. You deserve no less.

Bob Casey is a U.S. senator representing Pennsylvania. Josh Shapiro is Pennsylvania Attorney General. Both are Democrats.

Originally published at www.post-gazette.com on September 19, 2017.

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U.S. Senator Bob Casey

U.S. Senator Bob Casey

Representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania