Trump Administration

Dear Betsy, You Need to Get Serious About Addressing Sexual Assault

Dear Betsy, I think you’re having kind of a tough time in your new role. You’ve got a non-existent relationship with the press, you were voted the “ worst member” of Trump’s cabinet (a cabinet that includes Jeff Sessions!), and you’re still struggling to get staffed up. I’d love to feel bad for you. It can’t be easy to go from being a relatively unknown education-insider to the most hated person in a presidential cabinet. But to be quite frank, you just don’t deserve it. This week, you are focusing on campus sexual assault. An issue that is incredibly important to me—and one of the reasons that I was so anxious about your appointment. Turns out I had every reason to be anxious. One of your staffers, Candice Jackson, told the New York Times that 90 percent of campus sexual assaults “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.’” Jackson is referring to false reports of sexual assault, and the number she was looking for is actually 2-8 percent. She later apologized for being “flippant” in making that remark, but she never corrected the data point. This is the same Candice Jackson that, as my friend Mike Petrilli told the New York Times, was supposed to “give folks on the left some comfort,” because she herself is a survivor of sexual assault. I hate to break it to you, but I’m not feeling anywhere near comforted. I’m actually feeling a hot boiling rage coursing through my veins, causing my heart to race, threatening to make it impossible to write this piece because my hands are shaking so much I’m having trouble typing accurately. Even though you’ve put Jackson in a position to lead this work on sexual assault, she seems atrociously uninformed on the subject matter and doesn’t appear to take seriously the platform that she’s been given. If she did, she wouldn’t spout inaccurate facts to the New York Times. Even though more than 1 in 4 women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault, and even though assault has been an issue on campuses for decades—with little progress in stemming the rates at which women are assaulted—Jackson worries that the rights of accused rapists have “too often been ignored.” Even though 80 percent of women who are assaulted on college campuses never report their assault to the police—frequently because they fear the numerous ways in which they’ll be branded for being assaulted—Jackson is more worried about how accused rapists are branded, how their lives are ruined. But in a world where men like Donald Trump and Woody Allen were “ ruined” by accusations of sexual assault, that worry is misplaced at best. The numbers speak for themselves. Countless women are assaulted simply by virtue of being on a college campus and wanting to further their education. If Jackson thinks that there has been disproportionate attention paid to victims—that “investigative processes have not been ‘fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,’”—it’s because assault is so much more of a rampant problem on campuses across this country than false reporting is. Betsy, as the top education official in this country, it’s up to you to take this issue seriously and give victims the attention they deserve and need. When you meet this week with experts on this issue, I hope you take to heart the seriousness of their concerns and prioritize their stories. I hope you give appropriate weight to those who are there representing the victims and those who are there representing the accused. But I won’t be holding my breath.
Valentina Payne
Valentina Payne joined Bellwether Education Partners in 2021 as chief of staff to Andy Rotherham on the External Relations team. Prior to Bellwether, she spent seven years at brightbeam, where she most recently served as its chief growth officer, overseeing operations, finance, fundraising, and strategic growth of the organization.

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