You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

The Department of Education will host a closed-door summit on sexual assault today, giving sexual assault victims, due process advocates and campus leaders the chance to speak directly to Secretary Betsy DeVos.

But the department and DeVos are coming under fire for the involvement of groups considered "men's rights" organizations that have been accused of victim blaming and promoting harassment of sexual assault survivors who have come forward. While there has been an ongoing debate for years about proper protections for due process in the context of stronger enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, some of those groups are deemed by critics to be "men's rights organizations," promoting a harmful narrative about false rape claims. 

Adding to those concerns from advocates was a quote from the acting assistant secretary of civil rights to The New York Times Wednesday saying that 90 percent of campus assault allegations stemmed from both parties being drunk or having regrets over a consensual sexual encounter. Even as DeVos meets with a handful of sexual assault victims, dissatisfied advocates are planning a rally outside the Department of Education Thursday because they don't believe the voices of assault survivors are getting the time or weight they deserve.

The secretary will meet with interested parties on Title IX today in three 90-minute blocks -- the first spent with assault victims and Title IX advocates; the second with students the department says have been falsely accused and advocates for due process; and then a session with the institutional representatives. But it's the groups invited to take part in the second session that are drawing intense scrutiny, among them the National Coalition for Men and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE).

Advocates say both groups are known for lobbying against protections and for blaming women for assaults. They say Coalition for Men chapters have published names, photos and personal information of survivors of sexual assault, encouraging the harassment of women who report sexual violence. The group's president, Harry Crouch, in a 2014 interview with Pacific Standard magazine cited the domestic violence case of former NFL player Ray Rice as an instance of women initiating domestic assault -- what he termed the "men's violence industry."

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified SAVE as part of a sphere of websites and forums "dedicated to savaging feminists in particular and women, very typically American women, in general."

DeVos spokeswoman Liz Hill said the purpose of the summit is for the secretary to speak directly with students who have gone through the Title IX process.

"Each student in attendance is bringing with them someone who has represented them through their individual ordeal -- whether they be a survivor of sexual assault or someone who has been falsely accused and disciplined under Title IX," Hill said. "Advocacy groups representing students from both panels will be invited to share their expertise and their experience representing their individual clients through the Title IX process."

But Laura Dunn, executive director and founder of SurvJustice, said she sees a distinction between due process advocates and men's rights organizations. SAVE in particular promotes a misleading focus on false rape claims, she said. And Dunn said both organizations have contributed to framing sexual violence as being an issue of "men versus women." 

"I think groups like that are dangerous," she said. 

Dunn said it doesn't hurt for the secretary to hear from a range of groups and individuals -- SurvJustice is participating in the first session today. And Dunn cited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and Families Advocating for Campus Equality, who in her experience have made respectable arguments about federal and campus-based policy. (Those groups have generally argued that many campus judicial systems fail to provide adequate due process to those accused.) But she said she is concerned about the disproportionate influence of certain "fringe" groups on the policy process at the department. 

While FIRE isn't involved in the summit, Families Advocating for Campus Equality will be part of the second session focused on disciplined students. The third session will include higher ed groups such as the American Council on Education, the National Association of College and University Attorneys, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, as well as campus leaders and general counsels.

Neena Chaudhry, director of education and senior counsel at National Women's Law Center, which is also participating in the summit, said it's in the interest of all groups working on Title IX issues to have fair processes. The department should be working on helping campuses get that process right, she said. But the groups it has involved in its discussion of due process have "pretty extreme" track records of blaming victims, Chaudhry said.

"It raises a lot of eyebrows about where the department might be headed," she said. 

Chris Perry, a spokesman for SAVE, said the group doesn't advocate for doing away with Title IX protections and is "disappointed at these types of misrepresentations" from the group's critics. He said the group believes current sexual assault policies are shortchanging both victims of assault and accused students. 

“There should not be ‘sides’ in this push for justice, and it would be our wish that everyone come together to produce the best possible outcome for this failing situation,” he said. 

The Coalition for Men did not respond to a request for comment. 

Statement That Stunned Many

The Department of Education's leadership on civil rights has been clear in its thinking that male students accused of sexual assault on campus have suffered unfair consequences and had their due process rights trampled on. In an interview with The New York Times, Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights and the organizer of today's summit, described receiving hundreds of letters from students accused of sexual assault and their family members. 

Jackson told the Times that the investigative process has not been “fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student." And she said 90 percent of sexual assault accusations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

No evidence was provided to back up Jackson's assertions, which she apologized for after they were published. Jackson, a survivor of sexual assault herself, said her remarks were "flippant" and that all sexual assault must be taken seriously.

But the damage was done with advocates and women's groups who were already troubled by the groups included in meetings with DeVos today. 

Sejal Singh, a policy coordinator with Know Your IX, said Jackson's claim was divorced from reality and that the meetings with the Coalition for Men and SAVE are a "slap in the face" to assault survivors. 

"It’s disturbing that Secretary DeVos and Acting Assistant Secretary Jackson have spent far more time listening to naked misogynists and university lobbyists than they have spent listening to survivors and students, or learning the facts," she said. 

Next Story

More from Government