A group of protesters confronted U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as she was speaking at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government Thursday evening.
As DeVos was speaking about her advocacy for charter schools and the rollback of Obama-era guidance on investigating campus sexual assault, protesters holding signs reading "White Supremacist" and "Our Students Are Not 4 Sale" were ushered out by security. But others were later hoisted to raucous applause, and a chorus of "What does white supremacy look like? That's what white supremacy looks like," echoed as the secretary left the room after the event.
Those in opposition of DeVos' policies have been organizing to protest her stances on several issues, including the Trump administration's recent change allowing universities to require higher standards of evidence when handling complaints of sexual assault on campus.
DeVos has criticized the old policy, claiming it had been unfairly skewed against the accused.
"I credit the former administration for having raised the issue of campus sexual assault," DeVos said when asked about the policy change. "I have said it before and I'll say it again: One sexual assault is one too many. By the same token, one student that is denied due process is one too many. So we need to ensure that that policy and that framework is fair to all students — all students. And we're committed to doing that."
Samantha White, a 19-year-old neurobiology major, said she came to the speech to ask DeVos why she rescinded the campus sexual assault guidelines.
"I am very upset and angry about it," White said. "Sexual assault is such a huge problem on college campus already and if you are rolling this back, it makes survivors of sexual assault more vulnerable, and it's more difficult for them to seek justice when there aren't these regulations."
Asked about protections for transgender students, DeVos said she is committed to making sure all students are safe. Earlier this year, she rescinded guidance that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms that matched their gender identity.
"With respect to any student that feels unsafe or discriminated against in their school, that is the last thing we want and the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education continues to hear and work with the schools that have any of those issues to deal with," DeVos said. "And we are committed to doing that on behalf of the students."
Another student said school choice is used by large corporations to make profits and asked DeVos how much she expects her net worth to increase as a result of her policies.
DeVos took the question in stride. "I have written lots of checks to support giving parents and kids options to choose a school of their choice," DeVos said. "The balance on my income has gone very much the other way and will continue to do so."
School choice refers to efforts that give students options other than their local public schools, such as charter or private schools. Charter schools are funded by public money but usually operated by entities that are independent of school districts.
During her speech DeVos talked about the federal government's role in reforming the American education system.
"The future of school choice does not begin with a new federal mandate from Washington," DeVos said. Rather, she added, the role of the federal government is to help states provide more choices for parents as they decide where to send their children to school.
Before the speech, the Education Department announced $253 million in grants to expand charter schools across the country.
The awards went to nine states, two state agencies and over 20 nonprofit charter management organizations. The grants were awarded as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act.
"Charter schools are now part of the fabric of American education, and I look forward to seeing how we can continue to work with states to help ensure more students can learn in an environment that works for them," DeVos said in a statement.
DeVos was a supporter of school choice efforts in Michigan before becoming President Donald Trump's education chief.
Tony DelaRosa, 27, a student at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, held a sign at DeVos' talk that read, "Our Students Are Not 4 Sale."
"We need public schools not to lose our funding and be given to charter schools," DelaRosa told the Associated Press. "Administering more charters anywhere, it's going to take funding from somewhere."
Maria Danilova from the Associated Press contributed to this report.