This Male Sexual Assault Survivor Has A Message For Betsy DeVos

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Update: On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education rescinded Obama-era guidance on how schools must investigate and resolve reports of sexual violence. The new rules require higher standards of evidence, which women's rights groups say will be "devastating." Keep reading below for our earlier interview with survivor and activist Jordan Dashow, on what the Obama Administration's guidance did for survivors.
This story was originally published July 13, 2017.
The first thing Jordan Dashow planned to do when he arrived at Tufts University was to finally come out as gay. Growing up on Long Island and attending Jewish day school, he never felt comfortable enough to say it out loud, but Tufts had a reputation for being a great place for LGBTQ students. So much so that Dashow couldn’t even wait for his first day of class to come out; the first people he ever told about being gay were the people in his Tufts pre-orientation group.
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This excitement quickly soured, however, when his first-ever experience with a guy ended in sexual assault. For years, he couldn’t come to terms with what happened. He put the incident in the back of his mind, and struggled with feelings of shame, anxiety, and PTSD-associated symptoms — until junior year, when Dashow told a supportive friend and almost in the same breath, learned not only of another alleged assault by the same assailant but also of his rights under Title IX.
Today, Dashow is one of the survivors meeting with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she begins to delve into the ongoing debate about how college campuses should handle sexual assault cases. The central question for DeVos is the enforcement of Title IX, the landmark federal law that protects students from discrimination on the basis of sex, which according to multiple layers of legal precedent can include sexual harassment and sexual violence. While a few women’s groups like End Rape on Campus and the National Women’s Law Center were invited to make their case to defend the Obama era policies, DeVos is most notably also meeting with advocates for accused students, including “men’s rights” groups too, like the National Coalition for Men.
At issue are guidelines set by the Obama Administration in 2011; this guidance has become known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, and the point was to make it clearer, with specific examples like how long an investigation should take, how these reports of sexual violence should be handled by universities. Crucially, the letter stated that any school found to be noncompliant would be in danger of losing federal funding — which impacts pretty much every university in the country.
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Advocates say the letter was crucial in getting colleges to take sexual assault on campus seriously. But critics have successfully turned the issue into a debate about women’s rights versus men’s. But that perspective misses an important point: Title IX and the current guidance in the 2011 Dear Colleague letter protects students of all backgrounds, Dashow says. “The fact is sexual violence is something that can impact anyone, whether you’re male, female, nonbinary. Whether you’re straight or queer,” he says. “And universities have an obligation under Title IX to address it.”
Dashow was among the first crop of students to benefit from the effects of the Dear Colleague letter and the increased awareness of sexual assault on campus. We spoke to him ahead of this morning’s meeting, about what he plans to tell DeVos: “Reporting was still a really difficult process. But knowing that I had protections under Title IX and knowing, from the Dear Colleague letter, what Tufts’ obligations were definitely helped throughout the process.”
We talked with Dashow about why enforcing Title IX is important for all students — not just female students — and what he wants secretary DeVos to understand about this issue.
We talk a lot about reporting sexual assault, and how so few victims actually come forward. What made you want to report what happened to you to the school?
It took me a while to come to terms with it. I think I always knew in the back of my head that what happened was sexual assault, but because so much of the narrative that we learn growing up is you know, a man sexually assaulting a woman and they’re strangers. My experience didn’t conform to that stereotype, and so I definitely engaged in a lot of victim-blaming of myself, thinking like, Why didn’t I physically fight back? What could I have done differently? And so for a couple years, the easiest way for me to deal with what happened was to just shove it into the back of my brain and not really think about it. For a variety of reasons that became impossible.
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What made me come to terms with the fact that what had happened to me was sexual assault was the fact that I finally told a friend and her response was not only does this sound like sexaual assault but I also know of at least one other person that this happened to also, with the same person. This made me really face ‘Okay this is sexual assault and I need to do something about it.’ Meanwhile I was also struggling with PTSD symptoms and my assailant being on campus, so I really came to see the sexual misconduct adjudication process as a way to get my voice back and also to insure that I felt safe on campus. Because I honestly didn’t feel safe with him there.
Around this time, you also learned more about the process itself right? What was reporting and going through the adjudication process actually like?
From start to finish it took more than half a year for the process to conclude. During this process, the university at a couple of times failed to follow their own procedures. Ultimately they did find him responsible. At first they allowed him to remain on campus, but on probation, which was basically a slap on the wrist. It meant that if he did anything else that was a violation of student conduct he would be kicked out but if he didn’t or it wasn’t reported, [he’d be fine].
The decision was given to me in writing, but the dean who was supposed to meet with me to discuss the decision never did. So I actually thought he had been kicked off campus because he had been found responsible. It was only until I saw him on campus a couple weeks later and I frantically called the office of equal opportunity that they actually explained to me then that he was just on probation.
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I ultimately appealed that decision and it got him suspended for basically the remainder of the year, which was my last year on campus.
Do you think you got a good outcome in the end?
I think there were still problems. What’s important to know is that before the Dear Colleague letter, there were students who had reported [sexual misconduct] and Tufts had told them “we have no obligation to do anything about this.” It’s also important to know that at the end of my senior year that Tufts was found in violation of Title IX by the Department of Education.
So although the process wasn’t ideal, both in terms of the length and in terms of the fact that my assailant was originally allowed to stay on campus despite being found responsible, I think it would have been much worse without the Dear Colleague letter, which provided very clear guidance not just for the school but also for me, as a survivor, to know what my rights were and how the university was supposed to respond.
What do you think the main change the Dear Colleague letter brought about? Why is it important?
I think it’s really important for two reasons: First, it explains to schools what their obligations are under federal law. The Dear Colleague letter didn’t create new law, it just explained to schools how and what they need to do to follow and complete their obligations under Title IX. If you look at the history of Tufts’ sexual misconduct adjudication process, it has evolved significantly from basically nothing, since the Dear Colleague letter came about. Abandoning it would be abandoning all of that progress.
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It’s also really important for survivors because it tells to us what our schools’ obligations are and allows us to advocate for those changes. For example, the Dear Colleague letter recommends that process should take 60 days and mine took half a year. So it allowed me and other students to advocate for our universities to be quicker in responding to these or to notify students if it’s going to take longer than 60 days.
So a lot of progress has been made. What do you want DeVos to understand about this?
I think Betsy DeVos needs to understand that the way the guidance is written already heavily and equally weighs the rights of survivors and the accused. We need to get across how important the guidance is for survivors in the context of what was going on before the Dear Colleague letter was issued. We, as student survivors, need not just the guidance but we also need the Department of Education to be actively enforcing schools obligations under Title IX and to be transparent about it.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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