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Betsy DeVos Watch: On promoting a Culture of Safety in US Education Systems

April 17, 2017

Last Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the following statement

“Every student deserves to learn in an environment where they are safe, and this Administration is committed to promoting a culture of safety on our nation’s campuses.”

DeVos made this statement while meeting with Michigan’s First Lady Sue Snyder, who is attempting to work on the issue of sexual assault on US campuses. There were several news agencies seeking to get more information on the meeting between DeVos and Snyder, but so far no one knows what the two women spoke about. 

Sexual Assault on campuses across the US is a major issue. Twenty-three percent of female undergraduate students have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact, according to reports. Not only can this leave the student struggling with physical and emotional damage caused by the assault, survivors continue to be stigmatized. Some colleges also choose to sweep reports of these assaults under the rug.

So how seriously will Education Secretary Betsy DeVos take the issue of sexual assault on US campuses? It remains to be seen how serious she will take the issue, but we have some indication of where she stands on this matter, based on statements she made during her confirmation hearing.

The Obama administration cranked up the issue in 2011 when it sent a “Dear Colleague” letter out to universities telling them they had to respond promptly to claims of sexual assault and sexual harassment on their campuses. It also said they had to use the standard of “preponderance of the evidence” when determining whether an assault occurred. That standard — common in civil law — is lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard required for conviction in criminal cases.

During her confirmation hearing, DeVos would not commit to continue what the last administration had begun in 2011. The US Department of Education has confirmed that Candice E. Jackson will become the deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Jackson, a lawyer, received national recognition during the presidential campaign in 2016, since she wrote a book about how the Clintons have a history of disrespecting women. The appointment of Jackson seems to be a highly partisan move that will not translate into actual justice for victims of sexual assault on US campuses. DeVos has also stated that she plans on restoring due process for those accused of sexual assault on US campuses, which seems to suggest that she will not be taking an aggressive stance against sexual assault at the university level.

Promoting a Culture of Safety on US Campuses?

It is worth noting that Betsy DeVos, her husband Dick DeVos, the DeVos family and the Prince family have a long history of funding organizations that promote patriarchal values and hetero-normativity. From Focus on the Family to the Family Research Council, the DeVos and Prince families have given millions to dozens of organizations that do not make it a priority, even downplaying the urgency of, sexual assault in the US.

Expanding on the notion of what Betsy DeVos said last Thursday about promoting a culture of safety on US campuses, we must also apply that to students who identify as being from communities of color, immigrant communities, the LGBTQ community and those who practice Islam.

These students, in the current political climate, also would not feel safe on campuses across the nation. Just after the election in November of 2016, campuses were reporting an increase in hostile acts against minorities. However, it should be noted that this is not a new thing for minorities to feel unsafe on US campuses. The efforts to try to integrate schools, beginning in the 1960s, was met with tremendous resistance and a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center in the summer of 2000 documented that “hate on campuses has become commonplace.”

The new Secretary of Education has publicly stated that every student deserves to learn in an environment where they are safe, but we are not hopeful that this is what will actually happen. Safety in education will only happen when communities make it a priority and put it into practice across the country. Safety in education will only happen when white supremacy, classism and heterosexism are eliminated in every school.

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