Secretary DeVos: Keep Protections for Transgender Students and Survivors of Sexual Violence

by Harper Jean Tobin, Director of Policy

Advocates — including NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling — read the stories of survivors of campus sexual violence.

Yesterday, advocates gathered outside the Department of Education’s headquarters to read stories from survivors of campus sexual violence and call on call for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to keep critical guidance for schools on how to handle campus sexual violence. Former Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights head Vanita Gupta, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling were among the crowd. Meanwhile, inside the building, survivors of sexual assault in college and high school, accompanied by staff members from numerous advocacy organizations, shared their stories personally with Secretary DeVos and Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson.

I was among the advocates in the room. After survivors shared their stories, I had the opportunity to explain why the guidance is so important: it not only outlines schools’ responsibilities to survivors of sexual assault, but also recognizes that the federal Title IX law prohibits harassment and other discrimination targeting transgender students.

“Withdrawing it would rightly be seen by students, families and schools as yet another dangerous sign that the hundreds of thousands of transgender students in the United States are not a priority for the Department of Education— which already withdrew lifesaving 2016 guidance for schools on transgender students.”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing on January 18, 2017. Photo credit: NBC News

I also explained that sexual violence disproportionately impacts LGBTQ people, including transgender people: as NCTE found in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, nearly half (47%) of transgender adults have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. In order for her to understand the effect that the guidance has had on students throughout the country, I urged the Secretary to meet with groups affiliated with the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, which all focus on working with LGBTQ survivors of sexual assault, as well as survivors of hate crimes and domestic violence.

Hearteningly, Secretary DeVos did make clear that the Department of Education will not make any immediate moves on the guidance; stating this would not be the last meeting she would have with stakeholders.

We will hold her to that commitment. However, we continue to have concerns about the Department’s approach towards handling sexual violence in schools, and addressing the needs of transgender students based on the statements and actions of Administration officials to date. For example, the Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary’s discussions later in the day included fringe hate groups that are known for vilifying survivors of sexual assault.

NCTE will continue to urge the Secretary to meet with transgender survivors, and with other advocacy groups and students around the country. We will hold her to her promise to listen to survivors before changing guidance which has a very real impact on so many lives.

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