Betsy DeVos won’t prevent sexual assault, but Columbia can

By Editorial Board

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos confirmed that her department seemingly has no interest in preventing sexual assault on college campuses. 

She announced Sept. 7 that the Department of Education is rescinding former President Barack Obama administration’s guidelines on sexual assault in higher education institutions. The guidelines use the agency’s authority under Title IX—an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that extends protection against discrimination to students—to require colleges to investigate and take appropriate action on victims’ behalf in order to receive federal funding. 

DeVos said the guidelines are unfair to individuals accused of sexual assault because “one person denied due process is one too many.” 

As a general rule, victims do not come forward. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, for every 1,000 sexual assault cases, only 344 are reported. A reason these numbers are so low could be because of victim-blaming, which leads victims to feel more demonized than their attackers. With the odds already stacked against victims, this move by DeVos places even more strain on students who have faced unspeakable trauma. 

Sexual assaults will continue on campuses whether or not colleges are required to investigate them. While the DOE’s actions are reprehensible, the guidelines served as a superficial fix instead of addressing why victims are uncomfortable coming forward. Columbia, as an institution that should prioritize student safety, does provide helpful resources for students to promote that environment, but many students don’t even know about them.

The Columbia Sexual Assault Awareness Education Committee is trying to improve how the campus handles sexual assault and Title IX issues. The college also offers an array of events and activities, such as self-defense classes and a series of informational events in April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which focus on sexual assault and consent education for the college’s community. However, not enough students take advantage of these resources. 

Providing these activities shows awareness, but the spirit of education should compel colleges to discuss more deeply and frequently how to prevent sexual assault. Incoming freshmen are supposed to take a “required” online course on sexual assault, as reported Sept. 28, 2015 by the Chronicle, but low participation in this course shows it is not taken seriously enough. 

Columbia, along with every private or public university, must educate students on consent. To do this, the college must make a stronger effort to communicate a zero-tolerance policy for sex offenders.

The online course for incoming freshmen should move to a classroom setting, and the message should be reinforced throughout a student’s education. Sexual assault is not a comfortable topic as these online courses seem to suggest and should never be presented as something that students can casually click through. In light of DeVos’s decision, Columbia needs to move away from brief, cursory lessons and make them in-depth and expansive.

In a room with their peers and trained faculty members, students must be able to ask: “Am I capable of assaulting someone and what can I do to make sure that I don’t?” Giving students robust training on consent and sexual assault prevention is more valuable than a set of guidelines for administrations to use after the trauma has already occurred.