There’s a Quiet #MeToo Movement Unfolding in the Government’s Comments Section

Betsy DeVos wants to change how schools deal with claims of sexual assault and harassment. Survivors are fighting back.

Mother Jones illustration

On December 2, just after the Department of Education began collecting public feedback on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ plan to overhaul how schools handle reports of sexual harassment and assault, a nearly 60-year-old woman who identified herself as “Lynn Anonymous” decided to tell the department about being raped at 19.

“I had never met him,” she wrote on Regulations.gov, which collects public comments on proposed federal rules. “We just happened to cross paths. Looking back i [sic] guess he was looking for his version of fun.” She described being at a “teenage hangout” when the man invited her outside to talk, and how he pushed her down and held her despite her protests. “And at the end of this I had no recourse,” she wrote. “I could not do anything. Because at the time we were told it was a woman’s fault.”

Lynn was writing to criticize the proposed standards for how federally funded schools should apply Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, to cases of student sexual assault and harassment. DeVos has argued that the plan would protect the rights of both survivors and students accused of sexual misconduct. Among other measures, her proposal would narrow the Education Department’s definition of “sexual harassment,” allow administrators to ignore some off-campus incidents as well as complaints made to coaches and professors, and let schools raise the standard of evidence for survivors to prove they were assaulted or harassed. It would apply both to college and K-12 students.

But before the new rules can take effect, the Education Department must go through a process known as “notice and comment”—a 60-day period in which the public is invited to weigh in on proposed regulations. And the government is legally required to read the feedback and consider whether to incorporate it into the final rules.

Few proposals that go through a notice-and-comment period garner more than a handful of comments. DeVos’ plan has so far racked up 53,453. They include notes from a concerned grandparent and a worried high schooler, form letters from activists outraged by the proposal, and arguments against it from teachers, school administrators, and mental-health professionals. A small minority of comments support the proposed rules. And there are a growing number of stories like Lynn’s, by people—both anonymous and named—who cite personal experiences of sexual violence to oppose the regulation.

“I have been a victim of multiple cases of sexual assault and already do not feel comfortable at my own university,” wrote an undergrad in Pennsylvania.

“I was raped while in college,” said a woman from Austin.

“I am a student survivor who can, off the top of my head, name 10 other victims of sexual assault,” another added.

Many of the commenters who self-identified as survivors argued that the proposed regulation would discourage victims from reporting sexual assault and harassment to their schools. Some criticized more specific provisions. One former student from North Carolina, who said she was raped twice off-campus as an undergraduate, wrote about the part of the regulation that would give schools the discretion not to investigate sexual misconduct that happens “outside” their “education program or activity.” (For instance, experts say the proposal’s language isn’t clear on whether schools must investigate incidents that occur in off-campus housing.) Lynn argued that the proposal seemed designed to decrease schools’ liability for responding to sexual assault.

A few commenters focused on the part of the proposal that redefines sexual harassment from “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” to “unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies a person equal access to the [school’s] education program or activity.” An anonymous commenter who said they experienced sexual harassment feared that under the proposed rule, schools would only be required to investigate the “most extreme” harassment complaints. Another writer worried that under this language, colleges may not consider her experiences harassment because they didn’t stop her from attending class. “Despite my attacks, and the depression and anxiety that followed, I was still able to force myself to go to class and try my best,” she wrote. “Survivors shouldn’t be punished for their resilience and bravery. ”

Since the public feedback period opened in late November, activists have worked to turn out even more comments before the deadline on January 28. College students hosted parties with free food and advice on how to submit effective letters of protest. Graduates planned get-togethers to write their comments over wine. Alyssa Milano read aloud from a Dr. Seuss parody book that likened DeVos to the Grinch and her rules a “shitty gift” while urging supporters to send in their feedback. Activist groups like End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX launched a hashtag campaign, #HandsOffIX, and published guides for submitting comments online.

Meanwhile, in the comment period’s final weeks, some organizers are attempting to overwhelm the Department of Education with handwritten comments opposing the legislation. Organizers of the Women’s March Los Angeles and the Enough is Enough Voter Project, a super-PAC focused on sexual violence, say that together with the National Women’s Law Center, they have printed at least 100,000 postcards to distribute at Women’s Marches across the country and to chapters of groups like Indivisible and the American Association of University Women.

The idea is not just to solicit more public feedback, but also to throw a wrench into the Education Department’s procedures for processing each comment by forcing staffers to read each handwritten comment individually, rather than using machines. “Online comments are read by software which searches for terms and spits out an automated response,” explains Enough is Enough Voter Project founder Michele Dauber, who led the successful campaign to recall Judge Aaron Persky after he sentenced convicted campus rapist Brock Turner to six months in jail. “We are forcing the Trump administration to assign a human to actually read and respond to every single comment and give this issue the time and resources it deserves.” (The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment.)

There’s no guarantee that DeVos or the Department of Education will actually change the proposed regulations in response to feedback. Last year, a study by Barry University School of Law researchers examined responses to the Trump administration’s call for public comments to identify “unduly costly or unnecessarily burdensome” regulations. It found that 12,035 responses were about Title IX—and 97 percent of those responses supported the Obama administration’s approach to the issue. But the day after that public comment period closed, DeVos rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance on Title IX, claiming it was a “failed system” that was “widely criticized.”

But this time around, the process is more formal—so if the Department of Education does not respond to comments, they could face a lawsuit, explains Nancy Chi Cantalupo, one of the study’s authors. “There are potential legal consequences,” Cantalupo says. “The agency has to be able to justify to the courts that it read these comments, that it considered these comments in good faith, and that it had a reason for not responding directly to the public.”

In her comment, Lynn wrote that in the 40 years since she was raped, she had seen a cultural shift away from blaming victims of sexual violence. “Seeing changes in attitudes that put the proper responsibility in the proper place gave me a lot of Hope [sic],” she wrote. But still, she had internalized her experience. She spent years telling herself she was stupid or inadequate, and, she says, never trusting anyone. “I will sign anonymous,” she ended her letter, “because I’m still scared.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to include all the groups collaborating on the postcard project.