DeVos Threatens Rights of Rape Survivors—But California is Fighting Back

Updated Sept. 30 at 11:30 a.m. PT.

On Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to protect California college students from recent changes to Title IX, requiring schools nationwide to respond differently to student reports of sexual assault and harassment. Senate Bill 493 defies new rollbacks of protections for student victims which took effect in August under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.


DeVos Threatens Rights of Rape Survivors—But California is Fighting Back
SB 493 will make it easier for California students to report; require schools to investigate most off-campus incidents; and prohibit U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s traumatizing courtroom-style direct cross-examination of survivors. Pictured: DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

As a student survivor of sexual assault and a legal advocate for student survivors, we know firsthand how harmful it can be when schools fail to respond appropriately to students’ reports of sexual violence.

An estimated one in three students who is sexually assaulted in college drops out—more accurately, they’re pushed out, often because their school didn’t do enough to make them feel safe and supported after they reported.

Since 2016, when the Trump administration rescinded Obama-era guidance on how schools should handle reports of sexual violence, colleges nationwide have struggled to responsibly respond in a way that’s fair and does not re-traumatize the survivor.

As a result, investigations dragged on for months; investigators asked inappropriate, victim-blaming, or culturally insensitive questions; and schools automatically issued “mutual no-contact orders” (the school equivalent of a two-way restraining order), limiting the survivor’s movements on campus—which, to survivors, felt a lot like being punished for reporting rape.

Unfortunately, the situation got even worse on August 14, when the U.S. Department of Education issued new regulations of Title IX, the civil rights law that requires schools to take steps to prevent and address sexual harassment and sexual assault. Issued under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the regulations require nearly every school—from universities to elementary schools—to follow new procedures that significantly stack the odds against survivors, discourage students from reporting, and essentially turn student sexual misconduct processes into criminal court proceedings that are inappropriate for educational settings and do nothing to actually address rampant sexual violence in schools.

To make matters worse, DeVos issued these sweeping changes at the exact moment schools everywhere desperately scrambled to respond to a global pandemic with little guidance from the federal government.

DeVos Threatens Rights of Rape Survivors—But California is Fighting Back
A January 2017 protest in opposition of Betsy DeVos in D.C. (Ted Eytan / Flickr)

The regulations are meant to silence survivors and let sexual assailants off the hook. They roll back civil rights protections for all students, but they are especially harmful to survivors. They:

  • Require direct, live cross-examination of the survivor by an advisor of the assailant’s/harasser’s choosing, for example their friend, parent, or hired professional lawyer;
  • Forbid schools from investigating most off-campus incidents (where the vast majority of sexual assaults occur);
  • Require a standard of proof that will be virtually impossible for most survivors to meet; and
  • Eliminate deadlines, giving assailants and harassers the ability to drag out the investigation, hearing, and appeals processes endlessly to avoid accountability.

The Resistance in California

Survivors and advocates in California have decided to take matters into our own hands. We want to protect students’ safety and access to education. California Senate Bill 493 (authored by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson) would do exactly that. 

If signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, the new law would ensure all state-funded colleges and universities have appropriate, consistent, and trauma-informed processes in place to respond to student reports of sexual assault and harassment. It would help guarantee the sexual misconduct complaint and investigation process is fair, transparent, and accessible to all students.

The bill is so common sense that the University of California school system and the California State University system both officially support it.


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In direct response to DeVos’s harmful federal changes, SB 493 will make it easier for California students to report; require schools to investigate most off-campus incidents; and prohibit DeVos’s traumatizing courtroom-style direct cross-examination of survivors by the assailant’s “advisor,” friend or attorney. It would also require proper training of the school officials involved, including training on implicit bias, trauma-informed practices, and the history of racial discrimination in school discipline. The bill does not mandate any form of discipline. Rather, it requires fair investigations, transparent procedures, and appropriate training of school officials.

DeVos Threatens Rights of Rape Survivors—But California is Fighting Back
The University of California school system and the California State University system both officially support California Senate Bill 493. Pictured: University of California, Santa Barbara. (Kaya / Flickr)

This bill cannot afford to wait, not when our students’ safety and right to an education free from violence is under federal attack; not when 1 in 4 transgender and nonbinary students, 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 18 Black men are sexually assaulted in college. The problem is rampant, and often results in lifelong trauma for the survivor. And let’s be clear: The students who suffer most are young women of color and other underrepresented students. Black and Latina women experience disproportionately high rates of sexual harassment and assault in college, and are also more likely to be ignored, silenced, and retaliated against by their schools for reporting incidents.

But student survivors are fighting back — hard. Some have joined a lawsuit against DeVos and the Dept. of Education alongside Equal Rights Advocates, Victim Rights Law Center, Legal Voice, and Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation. Other students are speaking out publicly and testifying before the California legislature in support of SB 493. You can join them. The bill is finally on California Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk after a tumultuous 2-year battle. Send him a pre-drafted email using this action campaign from Equal Rights Advocates. 

Students have waited long enough for protection. Together, we can defend their access to education and take concrete steps to address the pervasive problem of college sexual assault that affects so many. If SB 493 succeeds in California, it could set precedent for similar laws in other states, and significantly advance the nationwide, student-led resistance for survivors’ rights.

*Caroline’s last name has been changed to protect the survivor’s identity.


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About and

Jessica Stender is senior counsel for workplace justice & public policy at Equal Rights Advocates where she leads policy advocacy, with a focus on sexual harassment, pay equity, pregnancy discrimination and education civil rights, and represents workers in employment discrimination cases. Jessica leads Stronger California, a statewide network of organizations and advocacy coalitions promoting policy reform to advance fair pay and improve economic security for women and families. She represented amici in the case Rizo v. Yovino, arguing that an employer cannot use a woman’s prior salary to justify paying her less than a man for equal work and has testified before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the need for pay data collection to close the gender and racial wage gaps.
Caroline Doe* is a student survivor of sexual violence and an advocate for survivors’ rights who has testified before the California legislature in support of Senate Bill 493.