Commentary: Albuquerque, NM - Today, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and 18 Attorneys General sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressing their concern over reports the Department of Education is preparing to roll back important protections for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses and urging her to keep these protections in place. The Attorneys General also called on Secretary DeVos to work collaboratively with them to take action to end the scourge of sexual violence on our campuses.
"Secretary DeVos and the Trump Administration cannot continue to put students in danger by considering harmful rollbacks that will weaken fundamental protections afforded under Title IX. Violence on America's campuses must be taken seriously," said Attorney General of New Mexico Hector Balderas, the letter’s co-author.
“We're calling on Secretary DeVos to listen to law enforcement and trust survivors of sexual assault by keeping these protections in place and putting student safety first,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, lead author of the letter.
Balderas continued: “In New Mexico, we are working with our institutions of higher learning to improve reporting trends, reduce sexual assaults, and make our students safer. We cannot afford to turn back the clock on the progress states are making because of poor decisions made by the Trump Administration."
In March, Attorney General Hector Balderas announced the launch of his office’s statewide Conscious Campus initiative. The educational initiative aims to help college communities discuss the realities of sexual assault on campus, explore interventions, and benefit from community resources. So far this year, Central New Mexico Community College, Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico Highlands University and New Mexico State University have participated in Attorney General Balderas’ program to combat sexual violence on campus.
Incidents of sexual assault on college campuses are widespread. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that, on average, 20.5 percent of college women had experienced sexual assault since entering college while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in five women experienced sexual assault in their lifetimes. Moreover, the vast majority of these incidents go unreported. According to a study from the American Association of Universities, reporting rates for some types of assaults were as low as five percent, in part due to survivors’ concerns about coming forward.
The Department of Education’s current guidance was first issued in 2011 and later clarified in 2014. The guidance instructs colleges on how they must address sexual assault incidents under Title IX. These steps include appointing a Title IX coordinator, requiring mandatory reporting by responsible school officials, and implementing procedures for handling investigations and hearings.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Title IX tracker, as of July 9, 2017 there have been 408 investigations of colleges for their handling of reports of sexual violence, 64 of those have been resolved and 344 remain open.
Of particular concern to the Attorneys General were the comments from Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson, who claimed that 90 percent of campus sexual assault allegations “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.’”
The letter reaffirmed the Attorneys General’s commitment to working collaboratively with Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education to address the problem of sexual assault, including suggesting the Secretary engage with a bipartisan group of Attorneys General and other stakeholders to discuss collaboration.
In addition to Attorneys General Balderas and Shapiro, the other 18 Attorneys General signing on to the letter to Secretary DeVos are: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, Delaware Attorney General Matthew Denn, District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.