Back in October, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill, S.B. 169, the aim of which was to codify federal regulations regarding the handling of sexual assault cases on college campuses. Introduced during the Obama administration, it is under review by the Trump administration, particularly Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. These regulations classified sexual assault as a form of sexual discrimination as defined by Title IX, a federal law prohibiting such acts within educational and other institutions receiving federal financial assistance.
DeVos has made remarks indicating that her review of these regulations stems from concerns about the potential for violations of due process for accused students, concerns echoed by Governor Brown in his statement explaining his decision. Brown also cites concerns that regulations codified by S.B. 169 may have an unintentionally disproportionate effect on underprivileged students and students of color.
Governor Brown’s concerns are not necessarily unfounded, but his decision underestimates the magnitude of the issue of campus sexual assault. While preserving constitutional rights for any American who stands accused of a crime is a matter of great importance, Brown’s veto strives to do so at the expense of victims and potential victims, especially given the disheartening statistics behind campus sexual assault.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), “Nearly two-thirds of college students experience sexual harassment, and less than 10 percent of these students tell a college or university employee,” a figure that illustrates not only the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, but also the degree to which the issue goes unreported and remains under-represented.
Furthermore, the NSVRC reports that 27 percent of college women have experienced unwanted sexual contact. Compare this with the 40 percent of colleges who held no sexual assault investigations between 2010 and 2015, the 30 percent who offered no sexual assault training to students or law enforcement, and the staggering 70 percent that had no protocol at all for working with law enforcement in sexual assault cases. These statistics indicate that without the Title IX regulations codified by S.B. 169, college campuses are largely ill-equipped to combat campus sexual assault at the alarmingly high rates that it is occurring.
As for concerns about due process violations for students accused of sexual assault, it is true that several investigations have been conducted into situations where this was found to be the case. In fact, the organization Stop Abusive And Violent Environments (SAVE) in its report entitled “Victim-Centered Investigations: New Liability Risk for Colleges and Universities” has outlined 30 such cases where, “a judge ruled at least partly in favor of the accused student.” However, this information only serves to illustrate that when it comes to violations of due process, we already possess the tools and the legislation to identify such violations, and to respond accordingly where they occur.
Due process is a constitutional right after all, and as such there is already ample protection for people who find this right infringed upon. As the stats provided by the NSVRC bear out, the same can’t quite be said for victims of campus sexual assault, whose legal options continue to be the subject of heated debate. Furthermore, the risk of disproportionate negative effects on minority and underprivileged students may be real, but these risks are symptomatic of greater issues with inequality within our judicial system, not a direct result of proactive measures regarding the implementation of Title IX.
Any low-income defendant in any case is at risk of being unable to afford adequate legal representation, just as any defendant of color is unfortunately more likely to encounter racial prejudice that has a negative effect on their case. These are very real issues, but they are endemic to our justice system and will not be ameliorated by doing away with protective measures for victims of sexual assault.
While I am sure that Governor Brown had good intentions with his decision, vetoing S.B. 169 was misguided at best, and dangerous at worst. Particularly at a time where the federal government is run by an administration whose guiding principle often appears to be trolling liberals with little regard for the consequences, and considering the sheer magnitude of the issue of campus sexual assault, it is more important than ever that we as a society stand up for those who have been victimized or are at risk. One hopes that in the future Governor Brown will keep these considerations in mind.
Skyler Romero is a third-year English major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.