Men who say they were falsely accused of sexual assault and harassment in college left their meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday feeling encouraged that a government official had seen their side of the story, they said. But advocates for sexual assault victims who met separately with DeVos on the same day had the opposite reaction, leaving with deep concerns about how the Education Department is approaching the issue of sexual violence on campus and fears that it could roll back more stringent guidelines implemented by the Obama administration.
DeVos is wading into a complex problem that has ignited protests and yielded policy changes on college campuses in recent years. Advocates for the rights of the accused are hopeful that the new administration presents an opportunity to reform a system they see as one-sided. But victims' advocates worry that elevating talk of false accusations will fuel a narrative that sexual assault reports do not need to be taken seriously.
The meetings were preceded by controversy this week after Candice Jackson, the head of the department's Office for Civil Rights, told the New York Times that 90% of campus sexual assault accusations "fall into the category of 'we were both drunk.'" She later apologized for the "flippant" remark in a statement and again at the meeting with assault victims.
Jonathon Andrews — who said he was falsely accused of sexual assault by two members of his Hanover College fraternity in 2015, after one of them sexually assaulted him — participated in one of the three meetings DeVos held Thursday. “It was very uplifting to me. It was a moment where you felt like you were finally being seen," he said. "Just to meet with somebody and show them that we’re human meant a lot."
Andrews, 23, works with Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), a nonprofit group that advocates to lawmakers and university officials for the due process rights of those accused of sexual assault. The group was labeled misogynistic by the Southern Poverty Law Center after it published a set of "key facts" about domestic violence that said "female initiation of partner violence is the leading reason for the woman becoming a victim of subsequent injury."
A representative of SAVE said in a statement that the group's facts about domestic violence come from scientific research, and that the particular item the Southern Poverty Law Center cited is based on research by Sandra Stith, a professor at Kansas State University. "SAVE takes a science-based approach to problems such as domestic violence and sexual assault," SAVE's statement said. "Studies have looked at the issue of domestic violence, which have consistently found that women are as likely as men to be physically aggressive with their partners.... If we want to prevent domestic violence injury, which is a greater problem among women than men, we need to address the problem of mutual partner violence. When SAVE seeks to highlight this important research finding with major implications for harm reduction, it's ironic and sad that a group such as the Southern Poverty Law Center would label this as misogynistic."
The Education Department's decision to meet with SAVE — along with the National Coalition for Men Carolinas, a men's rights organization, and Families Advocating for Campus Equality, a nonprofit founded by mothers of sons who were falsely accused of sexual misconduct in college — concerned people who say the groups are hostile to accusers.
"It is disturbing that the Department of Education would place these radical groups on the same level as those working tirelessly to confront the crisis of sexual assault on our campuses," Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, said in a letter to DeVos on Wednesday, calling the meeting a "slap in the face to the victims of campus sexual assault."
A separate meeting with victims' advocates on Thursday included Jess Davidson, the managing director of the group End Rape on Campus. Davidson said she was glad DeVos spent most of the meeting "listening very intently to survivors," but she remained skeptical of how the department will handle the issue. "It did not assuage my concerns. I will feel more confident when the department makes good on promises to continue meeting with survivors," Davidson said.
"I was concerned that, yet again, we don’t have a commitment from the Secretary to enforce Title IX," she added, referring to the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
Under former President Obama, controversial guidance issued by the Office for Civil Rights in 2011 told universities they were obligated to implement policies defining sexual assault and harassment under Title IX or risk losing federal funding. The 2011 guidance also established a requirement that college disciplinary proceedings rely on a preponderance of evidence when adjudicating cases of sexual assault — a lower burden of proof than is required in criminal courts.
It's not yet clear whether DeVos plans to overturn that guidance, though she told reporters on Thursday that change is necessary. "This is an issue we're not getting right," she said, according to Politico. The Office for Civil Rights has already changed some policies, including ending a requirement for local officials to report mishandled college sexual assault investigations to the central office in Washington, the New York Times reported in June.
Joseph Roberts, who said he was wrongfully accused of sexual harassment in 2013 and suspended from Savannah State University without a hearing, said his meeting on Thursday "was the first time I’ve ever had the chance to sit across from a lawmaker or a decision-maker that I felt like cared." Roberts, 36, faulted the Obama-era guidance for causing a crackdown on sexual assault that he thinks has made it too easy to file a false accusation. "If you want a guy to suffer, all you've got to do is Title IX them," he said.
That kind of rhetoric alarms victims' advocates, who are quick to note that many victims of sexual assault never see justice.
"There continues to be heinous injustice across this country," Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said at a rally Thursday outside the Department of Education, where activists and lawmakers read the stories of sexual assault victims. "This should be about decency, this should be about justice — not false ideology. So I urge Secretary DeVos and everyone else who works in the Department of Education to listen. Listen to these survivors’ stories. Listen to what happened to them."
Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center, said that in Thursday's meeting she called on DeVos "to show leadership in rejecting...outdated ideas and myths about rape," including the prevalence of false accusations. A 2015 study published in the journal Violence Against Women found that false accusations made up 2% to 10% of sexual assault claims.
While the interest groups who met with DeVos differ on how to solve the problem, they all agreed the current system isn't working.
"I think students, both those who have reported assault and those who have been accused, probably want, in truth, similar things from their schools," Graves said. "They want their schools to be fair to them, they want their schools to be transparent."
Update: This story has been updated with a comment from SAVE on the Southern Poverty Law Center's designation of the group as misogynistic.