Sylvester Brown Jr.

Lately, I’ve found myself in a very odd and uncomfortable position. Although I consider myself an independent thinker and writer, many of my political positions lean liberally left. Imagine how uneasy it is for a guy like me to side with mostly Republicans on a very contentious issue: Title IX reform in Missouri.

In my last commentary for this newspaper, I attempted to defend the reputation of Dave Steward, founder and chairman of World Wide Technology. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger among others accused Steward of funding a “dark money” group intent on weakening the federal Title IX processes. “The legislation (House Bill 573 and Senate Bill 259) is an attack on rape victims, an attempt to make it harder for women to bring forward allegations of assault on campus,” Messenger wrote.

Other than the fact that the organization, Kingdom Principles, is a registered 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit that isn’t required to disclose its donors, there was nothing “dark” about Steward’s involvement. Kingdom Principles has publicly stated that it provides money to the Missouri Campus Due Process Coalition, which on its website clearly states that it “supports reforms to Missouri law to ensure that both the accuser and the accused receive due process as provided by our Constitution.”

Steward is a strong advocate for due process, especially after he found out that an overwhelming number of young men of color are most often suspended, expelled and lose scholarships due to unsubstantiated allegations and kangaroo court-type college adjudication systems initiated after President Obama mandated Title IX changes in 2011.

And therein lies the rub. After reviewing dozens of newspaper stories, pending and settled lawsuits against colleges and universities and related Title IX horror stories, I’ve concluded that much of the heated debate is less about policy change and more about stubborn political positions and misplaced loyalties. 

Late last year, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that the Trump Administration planned to overhaul sexual assault rules for colleges under Title IX. Democrats – voicing the fears of some civil rights groups, college administrators and advocates for crime victims – vowed to use their newfound control of the House to stop Trump and DeVos.

It was a politically predictable response to what many Dems view as Trump’s compulsive efforts to undo any and all things Obama, including his environmental, trade, health care, consumer safety and immigration policies.

I, too, have been critical of the president and his policies. However, the problem with the “oppose everything Trump approach” is that DeVos’ proposal drew widespread praise from academics, civil liberties groups, due-process advocates and legal experts. Even The Washington Post wrote: “Ms. DeVos is right that there are problems with the current system, and her department’s proposal contains some sensible changes that would bring needed balance to how disciplinary proceedings are conducted.”

Those “sensible changes” included ensuring fairness to students accused of misconduct — a presumption of fairness, written notice of allegations, a review all evidence collected and the right to an appeal.

In 2017, Jerry Brown, California’s uber-liberal Democratic governor, vetoed a state bill that codified Obama-era Title IX guidance rules on California public schools. Brown said it was “time to pause” on the issue partly because the adjudication system on college campuses failed to adequately protect fundamental due-process rights.

Many other Democrats, however, are sticking with the “attack on rape victims” ethos without giving any credence to the notion that the Obama Administration’s changes to Title IX unknowingly enforced policies that systematically and disproportionately harm students of color. Equally disturbing is the fact that some opponents to proposed legislative changes seem willing to sacrifice black male students at the alter in the face of devastating evidence of university-based discriminatory.

Obama loyalists and opponents of proposed legislative changes consistently claim there is no evidence that corroborates charges of Title IX systemized discrimination. Technically, they’re right. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which enforces Title IX policies, collects data on race but it doesn’t require colleges and universities to document the race of the accused or accuser in sexual-assault complaints, expulsions or punishments.

However, in 2014, OCR’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) department released data compiled from its study of all public, private, elementary and secondary educational institutions. The study emphasized that students of color tend to be disciplined more than three times as much as their white peers. Additionally, African Americans, who only comprised 15 percent of the CRDC student study, represented 35 percent of all suspensions and 36 percent of all expulsions.

The report should have served as a wake-up call to black political and civil rights leaders. It enforced what they already know.

Even though the Obama Administration put schools on notice that federal funding would be jeopardized if their suspension and expulsion numbers continued to show signs of discrimination, opponents of legislative change and Obama legacy protectors pretend there are no race-based problems with the current educational adjudication processes.  

There is. There is a plethora of anecdotal evidence in the form of newspaper articles such as Emily Yoffe’s three-part series in the Atlantic or Auburn University’s Michael Jones’ revealing commentary titled, “Here’s 11 times young black men were railroaded by campus sexual assault claims.”

Unbiased research reveals commentaries and congressional testimonies from self-described feminists and Harvard Law Professors Jeannie Suk Gersen and Janet Halley. Both have questioned the disproportionate and “unreasonably high” number sexual assault complaints against minority students. Also, consider Lara Bazelon, another feminist law professor and author of “Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction,” who was so disturbed by the rate of race-based campus suspensions she started a pro bono legal clinic to assist low-income minority male students.

Some black political and civic leaders nationally and locally have rejected partisan politics and summoned the gumption to stand for constitutionally guaranteed due process rights even if it’s at odds with Democratic loyalties. Incidences of discrimination at colleges and universities have become so alarmingly high that the St. Louis County branch of the NAACP recently announced its support for legislation that would change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault complaints.

“The denial of due process at Missouri's colleges disproportionately impacts African-American men," St. Louis County NAACP President John Gaskin III stated in support of proposed House bills aimed at making Title IX procedures “fairer for the accused.”

If we strip away bipartisan alliances and loyalties to past or present presidents, there may be political common ground on a serious issue that can deter the futures of kids on college and university campuses in Missouri and beyond.

Sylvester Brown Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth, and the author of “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”

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