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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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Following US Capitol insurrection, AU reacts to DeVos resignation

Changes to Title IX, trans student protections and school reopenings were widely criticized

Following Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s resignation in reaction to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the American University community condemned her legacy of “heartless policies.”

Foremost in their criticisms were her moves to roll back sexual assault definitions within Title IX, the federal civil rights law meant to prevent sex-based discrimination in education. The Department of Education has called the changes a move to implement more thorough due process and fairness. 

“She has the moral backbone of a chocolate eclair on a good day, and that it took her until there was ... a literal threat to her life quite possibly for her to resign and step away from, you know, an absolute demagogue that has been in office for the last four years,” said Rachel Abraham, a senior in the School of Public Affairs who filed a Title IX complaint in January 2020. The experience, she said, was “incredibly unpleasant,” and she instead turned to the D.C. Superior Court for help after being informed she’d have to speak with the accused. 

Throughout DeVos's tenure, students criticized the decisions that led to increased rights for students accused of sexual assault and harassment by forcing survivors to confront them directly, less university responsibility for off-campus assaults, and language that many in the AU community said would result in fewer survivors coming forward in the first place. The changes mean that instead of allowing the University to follow a single investigator model, where the Title IX office would work to establish whether a complaint is founded, it must instead follow a hearing model, where the accuser and the accused meet and question each other.

Abraham called the policies that require survivors to face their accuser and limit the role of universities in off-campus events “disgusting,” and said that the impact from such decisions will be felt for years to come. Although the incoming Biden administration has floated plans to reverse the changes, Abraham said that DeVos’s actions still irreparably changed the way people look at sexual assault on college campuses. 

“The damage has been done,” she said. 

DeVos did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the University declined to comment. AU’s Title IX coordinator did not respond to a request for comment. 

Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, the dean of the School of Education, called DeVos’s resignation a “cowardly move” meant to avoid the burden of invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows the president to be removed from office, but requires the vice president’s initiative. 

While DeVos may have been trying to distance herself from the Capitol insurrection, Holcomb-McCoy said, “She’s been with this administration for three-and-a-half, for four years, but two weeks before it ends, you’re going to leave? That just means you want to exit when it’s not as popular to be a part of this administration anymore.”

Holcomb-McCoy said it was clear from the outset that DeVos didn’t understand the needs of U.S. public education including the unique challenges faced by low-resource rural districts and urban areas. These issues were thrown into stark relief by the necessity of implementing remote learning due to the pandemic, a move that has been especially difficult in areas with low-income students and families. 

“The impact is great. I don’t know how to calculate the numbers … how many families and people were touched by these policies, that I feel take away rights instead of giving them,” Holcomb-McCoy said. “I see the federal government as being protective of peoples’ rights, of students’ rights, but instead we have a Department of Education that was hell-bent on taking away rights, and that’s a pretty sad statement.”

Robert Simmons, a professor of education policy and leadership at AU, said that while he strongly disagreed with DeVos’s policies and actions in office, much of her work is directly tied to President Donald Trump, meaning their legacies are conflated. He cautioned against being blind to Trump’s role in all policy coming out of the administration and asked that people take the time to examine other education secretaries as closely as they have DeVos. 

He said her resignation in reaction to the Capitol insurrection was cosmetic. 

“Everything that [Trump] has done was offensive, so now, all of a sudden, you have to see violence against white bodies, … but yet the brutality put onto Black and brown folks and their white allies in Lafayette Park wasn’t enough?” Simmons said. “I don’t give them a pass for resigning.”

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