Education advocates say that DeVos’s rules burden schools and threaten to silence victims of sexual misconduct.
Education advocates and women’s rights activists have lodged a flurry of lawsuits against the Department of Education, which is attempting to overhaul Obama-era rules on sexual misconduct investigations.
According to The New York Times, plaintiffs as young as 10 years old have joined lawsuits against the department. Across ages, states, and social spaces, litigants allege that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s revisions will harm victims of sexual misconduct and damage institutions.
Last week, says the Times, seven students joined a complaint filed by the National Women’s Law Center. It takes issue with many of the department’s new rules, which seek to limit school’s liability in investigations and, among other changes, permit persons accused of sexual assault to cross-examine their accusers.
One of the seven plaintiffs is a Michigan fifth-grader, who says she was assaulted by classmates four times in the span of two months—she, and her legal counsel, believe the chance of a formal, impartial investigation are diminished by DeVos’s reforms. Another female student, still studying at the University of California’s Santa Cruz camps, accused a professor of misconduct—now, she is afraid the Department of Education’s guidance will force a face-to-face confrontation.
While some officials are supportive of more rights for persons accused of sexual misconduct, they say the rules do too much damage to warrant the cost. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, along with several of his colleagues, have blasted the Trump administration, saying DeVos’s guidance undoes important protections.
Critically, Shapiro’s office noted that the new rules force trial-like processes onto not just colleges and universities, but primary and secondary schools, too.
“If any student experiences sexual harassment, or if any student is accused of committing sexual harassment, they deserve a fair process,” a Shapiro spokesperson said. “But Secretary DeVos has chosen to issue regulations that narrow Title IX’s protections. She has also chosen to impose a prescriptive process on all schools that is both inequitable and unfair—especially for primary and secondary schools.”
Shiwali Patel, director of Justice for Student Survivors at the National Women’s Law Center, told the New York Times that students’ fear shows the harm caused by DeVos’s attempts to cut red tape.
“The fear these students are living with show how real the consequences are of DeVos’s rule,” Patel said. “The rule isn’t about evening the playing field—it’s about directly harming survivors and making it harder for them to come forward.”
And it is not just women’s interest groups challenging the agency, either. As LegalReader reported earlier this year, education activists, academic institutions, and attorneys general have also requested an injunction against the Department of Education, saying its implementation deadline of August 14th is unreasonable given the ongoing pandemic.
But DeVos and other Education officials have resisted calls for change or reconsideration.
“Schools have been on notice since 2017 that chance was coming, and civil rights and due process cannot wait,” the department said in a statement. “We know schools can rise to the challenge of protecting all of their students. We know that institutions are still receiving Title IX complaints while students learn remotely, and to pretend otherwise would mean doing students a disservice.”
The Times notes that other states’ attorneys general have filed lawsuits against DeVos, too. New York, for instance, is seeking injunctive relief against the rules, believing they could cost the multi-campus State University of New York billions of dollars.
New York Attorney General Letitia James suggested that the department’s guidance is indicative of broader trends of intolerance in the Trump administration.
“The president has repeatedly shown that he doesn’t think sexual harassment is a serious matter, but his callousness now threatens our youngest and most vulnerable and could increase the likelihood of sexual harassment and abuse of students in schools,” James said.