Jacques: #DearBetsy, keep up the fight for common sense

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Betsy DeVos is starting to bring some much-needed common sense to the U.S. Department of Education — especially the increasingly invasive Office for Civil Rights.

You wouldn’t know that from the hysterical responses the education secretary is getting from the left, and much of the media. It would seem DeVos is on a mission to defend rapists, harm transgender children and allow greedy for-profit colleges to prey on unsuspecting students.

A recent #DearBetsy tweeting frenzy sought to shame DeVos into upholding Obama-era rules related to campus sexual assault.

■Actress Mariska Hargitay tweeted: “#DearBetsy: Survivors deserve to be heard and supported, not blamed and shamed.”

■Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York wrote: “#DearBetsy: I ask you to listen to these survivors — and understand just why we’re in this fight.”

■And the Women’s March quipped: “Another day, another instance of this administration institutionalizing rape culture.”

Since 2011, campus administrators have been under intense pressure from the feds to investigate claims of assault and assign blame as quickly as possible, using a much weaker standard of guilt than is used in the courts.

From the beginning of her tenure, the secretary has made it clear she’s concerned these policies have gone too far in undermining the constitutional right to due process of the accused.

Even free speech is under attack by the Education Department’s broad definition of sexual harassment. For instance, several graduate students filed a Title IX investigation against Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis simply because of a 2015 piece she wrote calling for less strict rules governing professor-student relationships.

Many feminists are outraged DeVos had the nerve to meet with men’s rights groups (she met with women’s rights groups and victims, too), who have raised valid arguments against these campus investigations.

Perhaps supporters of a heavy-handed civil rights office are forgetting that their candidate didn’t win last November. They can persist and resist, but it won’t change the fact that a new administration is in place, tasked by voters with a different set of priorities.

“It’s not a simple left/right battle,” says R. Shep Melnick, a professor of American politics at Boston College, who is writing a book on Title IX. “There are very broad concerns about these rules.”

Melnick is no fan of President Trump or his administration, but as he observes, hostility toward the president shouldn’t translate into supporting bad policy.

He has delved into the Office for Civil Rights and found some alarming trends. Melnick points out that in last year’s roughly 16,000 reported cases, more than 6,000 Title IX complaints were filed by a single individual. Think about that for a minute.

“To criticize OCR’s current enforcement strategy and the Title IX policies announced by the Obama administration is not to attack civil rights,” Melnick wrote recently for Education Next. “Controversial public policies should not be exempt from reexamination simply because their authors place the label ‘civil rights’ upon them.”

That’s the right way to look at DeVos’ approach. She says under her watch, the department won’t be “issuing decrees” on matters of unsettled law. That’s what the civil rights office did last year, when it sent out a letter telling schools Title IX covered gender identity and so schools had to allow transgender kids to use the bathroom and locker room they preferred.

The Trump administration has rescinded that guidance, yet it’s maintained a commitment to protect transgender students from “discrimination, bullying or harassment.”

The series of Dear Colleague letters put out under the former administration raised the specter of withdrawn funding if schools didn’t meet the demands. And it sent these edicts without going through the hard work of giving advance notice and taking public comment.

That’s something else DeVos should change.

As Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli has argued, “the Obama administration turned almost everything into a potential civil rights violation.”

It only makes sense to give that kind of federal overreach a second look.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques