Penn State has spent the past several years taking steps to address sexual assault on campus.
If President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education is put in place, there are questions about whether the rules the university is following to tackle the issue will still be enforced. Asked about it in a senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Betsy DeVos said she would be “looking very closely at how this has been regulated and handled and with great sensitivity to those who are victims.”
That was not comforting to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania.
He introduced the Campus SaVE Act in 2013. It went into effect in 2015 and amended the federal Clery Act, governing how colleges deal with the issue by improving transparency, accountability, education and collaboration. In August 2016, he came to State College to talk about things that still need to be done, such as making ending sexual assault a priority for everyone on campus, especially men.
On Wednesday, he told the Centre Daily Times that he was disheartened by DeVos’s comments and hedging on the issue.
“It shouldn’t be that hard to say, ‘Yes, absolutely, I will enforce the law,’” Casey said.
He pointed to her donations to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as a conflict there. FIRE has argued to take universities out of the equation.
“As more students accused of sexual assault sue their universities, one thing is clear: College judicial bodies are poorly equipped to handle allegations of sexual assault,” an article from July 2016 on the group’s website said.
Penn State made substantial changes to how it handles sexual assault after recommendations from President Eric Barron’s task force in 2015. After they were implemented, the school was sued by two John Does who were reported under the new system. That case was dismissed with prejudice in December 2016.
“She seems to believe the policy must change dramatically,” Casey said.
He thinks that 18 months into Campus SaVE is too soon to make those decisions rather than measuring progress and making any necessary adjustments, something he expects before the law would be recertified at the five year mark.
Instead, Casey sees more work ahead.
“It’s a huge problem. There’s still more policy work to do,” he said. “We need to hold perpetrators accountable. We should be working on that.”
Penn State says its goals won’t change if a new secretary decides against enforcement.
“Our motivation for all we do to prevent sexual misconduct and respond to it when it occurs is not found in a particular law or federal mandate, but rather in the understanding that our students and employees are less likely to succeed, if they are not free from the anxiety and pain such misconduct can cause,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims. “Regardless how Title IX is interpreted and applied by the federal government, Penn State’s commitment to the safety, security and well-being of its students and employees shall remain.”
Casey calls that good news, and expects that other colleges and universities that invested time and energy into developing new policies to address the issue will have similar mindsets to protect the estimated 1 in 5 women who are assaulted.
“We’ve come too far and have too far to go on campus sexual assaults to go back to the days of zero accountability. A sexual assault is the ultimate betrayal and the students of our nation deserve a Secretary of Education who will stand up for them, not one unwilling to commit to enforcing basic campus sexual assault protections,” he said in a statement after the hearing.
On Wednesday, Casey released another statement, saying he would vote “no” on three of Trump’s Cabinet picks — attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, Environmental Protection Agency administrator nominee Scott Pruitt and DeVos.