EDITORIAL: Don't sweep campus rape under rug

York Dispatch

No one really knows how many rapes are committed on college campuses each year.

Advocates for victims of sexual assault say as many as one in five female college students and one in 20 male college students are victims of sexual violence during their time on campus.

Only 20 percent of female victims of sexual assault on campus report the violence, according to It's On Us, an organization devoted to changing the culture on college campuses to end sexual assaults. Male victims are even less likely to report the crime.

It's On Us and It's On Us PA have been working for years to educate students about consent, increase bystander intervention and support survivors, whether they report the assault or not.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about campus sexual assault and enforcement of Title IX, the federal law that bars discrimination in education on the basis of gender, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Many other groups, including the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Pennsylvania Coalition for Women, have spent years educating the public about sexual assault and working to create an environment that places the blame on the perpetrator, not the victim.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to change that.

DeVos announced last week during a speech at George Mason University that she will change the guidelines for college campuses set down by the Obama administration in 2011 that require schools to investigate all complaints of sexual assault and detail how they must conduct disciplinary proceedings.

Colleges were told to judge cases using the standard of "it's more likely than not" that the accused did commit the offense, critics of the guideline said, as opposed to the criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt."

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While DeVos said in her speech that every survivor of sexual assault will be taken seriously and that "acts of sexual misconduct are reprehensible, disgusting and unacceptable," she also repeatedly spoke of protecting the rights of students accused of sexual misconduct, according to The Associated Press.

Victims of sexual violence and their supporters gather to protest before a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. DeVos plans to end the Obama administration's rules for investigating allegations of sexual violence on campus. DeVos said "The era of 'rule by letter' is over," as she announced plans to review and replace the way colleges and university handle investigations. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Yes, it's true that the rights of the accused must be upheld. And yes, there have been false reports of sexual misconduct.

But the rate of false reports for sexual assault is between 2 percent and 10 percent, according to PCAR. It is far more likely that a victim will not step forward than that an accusation is false.

"By making allegations of a ‘broken system,’ and perpetuating the myth that false reporting is prevalent, victims of sexual assault and their experiences are minimized," PCAR said in an open letter after DeVos' speech.

Gov. Tom Wolf, who has spoken out many times about the epidemic of sexual assault on campus and spearheaded the It's On Us PA movement that began in 2016, sent a letter to DeVos asking her to "preserve these policies, which have paved the way for increased transparency, safety and support for all students."

Randi Teplitz, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Commission for Women, also spoke out against the proposed changes to guidelines. 

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"It is disheartening that in 2017, victims of sexual violence continue to battle stereotypes and rape myths. The reality is that the number of false reports of sexual assault is statistically insignificant," Teplitz said in a news release sent by Wolf. "The Pennsylvania Commission for Women is proud to stand with Governor Wolf in supporting and advancing initiatives that will continue to protect victims regardless of any misguided policies that are set forth by our federal government."

Victims of rape on college campuses need our support and deserve to have their stories heard and believed. We have moved past the days when these abhorrent acts were hushed up and sexual predators were free to find their next victim.

It's on us to make sure that the steps that have been taken forward are not taken back in a misguided effort at fairness for the accused.

It's on us to speak out against the culture that would blame the victims of sexual assault.

It's on us to speak out against the changes that would bring more harm to survivors of rape.

Let the Education Department know you are against changes to Title IX by going to www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/08/11/2017-16876/evaluation-of-existing-regulations and raising your voice.