The Education Department’s acting civil rights chief, Candice Jackson, apologized Thursday to campus sexual assault survivors for a comment she made that appeared to discredit such claims, according to advocates in the room.
The meeting was the first of three that Jackson and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are having during the day on the issue of campus sexual violence. They are also meeting with those accused of assault and higher education leaders as they weigh the department’s handling of the hot-button issue.
Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center, said Jackson tried to explain her comments to the group, but Graves said she wasn’t satisfied with the answer.
"There’s no way to take it back, unfortunately. It’s been put out there. The only thing they can do now is exercise the leadership and spending a lot of time rejecting the rape myths they propagated this week," Graves told POLITICO as she left the Education Department.
Jackson on Wednesday told The New York Times that “the accusations — 90 percent of them — fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’"
Jackson later issued a written apology saying the comments "poorly characterized the conversations I’ve had with countless groups of advocates. What I said was flippant, and I am sorry.”
An Education Department spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment about what was discussed during the meeting.
Graves said DeVos said little during the meeting and mostly listened as assault survivors shared their experiences. But DeVos did indicate she planned to do more listening sessions in other parts of the country, according to multiple advocates who were in the room.
The advocates said they were cheered by the fact that the meeting ran over by 15 minutes and everyone in the room had a chance to tell their story. They also gave a binder of stories about sexual assault to DeVos.
Still, Graves said Jackson’s comments to the Times made it difficult for survivors to attend.
"It’s hard to share your story in any environment, but when you hear the sort of rape myths put out there from a department official, they still came and shared their stories,” she said. "The reason they’re willing to come here today is because they’re deeply worried we are going to roll back all the progress we’ve made."
All sides have been watching closely to see whether the Education Department will rescind 2011 guidance under the federal Title IX law issued by the Obama administration aimed at encouraging students who have been harassed or assaulted to report what happened to them and seek justice. The guidance includes a provision that says universities should use a lower standard of evidence in disciplinary hearings than that used in criminal trials.
While many women’s groups hailed the guidance as a crucial step in cracking down on what they described as an epidemic of campus sexual violence, critics have said it pushed college administrators to trample the rights of accused students.
DeVos has scheduled a media availability to answer questions later Thursday, but the department said DeVos would not announce any policy changes.
Diamond Naga Siu contributed to this report.