With DeVos rollback, Legislature must act on campus assault bill
Federal rule change makes it imperative for state to protect sexual assault victims
WHEN US EDUCATION Secretary Betsy DeVos first announced her intention to roll back Obama-era Title IX guidelines designed to protect the rights of students impacted by sexual violence, she was met with righteous anger. To address her manufactured crisis, she proposed a new set of guidelines which advocates warned would turn colleges into courthouses, jeopardize student safety, and deny survivors their rights. This month that rollback was officially finalized, putting the rights of students who have experienced sexual violence across the country under threat.
Since 2017, the DeVos education department has argued that the rights of alleged assailants have been trampled by a system that prioritized protecting students impacted by sexual violence. Secretary DeVos specifically blamed 2011 guidelines to universities on handling Title IX complaints for overburdening universities with a loose definition of sexual violence and insisted that those accused were denied a balanced trial, which she sought to restore in the recently-issued Title IX regulations.
But at its core, Title IX is about protecting the right of students to access an education free from discrimination. Whereas the 2011 guidelines outlined a platform for students impacted by sexual violence to receive restitution, the DeVos moves place higher burdens on those students. From limiting survivors’ options for legal recourse to requiring that student survivors — be they kindergartners or college students — undergo courtroom-style cross-examination to literally redefining “sexual violence,” the new regulations undermine the very purpose of Title IX itself.
Here in Massachusetts, students, advocates, health care providers, university leaders, and elected officials have consistently condemned the proposed guidelines since they were first released in draft form in 2018. Merely condemning the changes, however, will do little to help the more than 425,000 college students on campuses across Massachusetts who need help now and are unlikely to receive it from a federal Office of Civil Rights that seems more concerned with protecting schools from liability than in protecting students from rape and sexual assault.
If Massachusetts wants to stand with students, there is a clear path forward: Bipartisan, student-written and survivor-centered legislation that has been sitting before the Legislature for more than five years. House Bill 4418 would improve access to health care and counseling services for survivors, strengthen sexual assault prevention and response education for students and staff, and gather public data on sexual violence to bring the problem to light.
Even before Devos’s guidelines were finalized, the bill was endorsed by local and national advocates groups, including Jane Doe, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Know Your IX, SurvJustice, End Rape on Campus, and the Massachusetts Office of Victims Assistance, and has been co-sponsored by more than two-thirds of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Most importantly, this bill is backed by those directly impacted by sexual violence on campus: students. Over the last four years, students from more than 40 campuses have come together to form the Every Voice Coalition, an all-volunteer, student- and survivor-led coalition for change. Through Every Voice’s advocacy efforts, students have written thousands of letters and emails, called every lawmakers’ office in the State House, testified before the Legislature, and even come together for the first-ever student-led statewide summit to address campus sexual violence. In total, more than 130,000 supporters have now signed the petition for Massachusetts to take action against campus sexual violence by passing this legislation.Last week’s announcement marked a significant setback for survivors’ rights in America. Now, Massachusetts has a choice to make: Either we can stand by and allow Secretary DeVos to roll back protections, or we can take concrete action to support students who have experienced sexual violence in the Commonwealth. As a national leader in higher education, states across the country are looking to Massachusetts to see how we will respond. On behalf of students and survivors, our message is clear: the time for action is now.
John Gabrieli is founder and co-chair of the Every Voice Coalition and graduated from Harvard University in 2016. Jace Ritchey is a strategist at Every Voice and graduated from Northeastern University in 2019.