Abbey Childs is a recent graduate from the College of William & Mary and a survivor of sexual assault. In response to her experience, she founded and led an advocacy organization, 16(IX)3, to strengthen her university’s sexual misconduct policy to better protect survivors. All opinions are her own.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has now officially rolled back Obama-era guidance on Title IX. In doing so, the Trump administration made clear what many have expected all along: That it does not and will not stand with survivors of sexual violence on campus.
Before 2011, universities routinely brushed reports of sexual violence under the rug. The 2011 Dear Colleague letter outlined the responsibility those universities had to respond to reports promptly and effectively. Among the guidelines for doing so was a recommended 60-day period in which schools should strive to resolve complaints, and the requirement of university investigations to follow the preponderance of evidence standard, the same evidentiary standard used in civil proceedings. These policies helped protect survivors of sexual violence from the long tradition of shame and silence that has always pervaded the reporting process.
Now, with the latest Dear Colleague letter published last Friday, Secretary DeVos erased that progress in one fell swoop, giving schools the opportunity to choose a higher standard of evidence and removing the timing guidance. For those who have experienced sexual violence first hand, know that you are not alone in your feelings of fear, anger, disgust, and betrayal. I’m right there with you. Much of the incredible advocacy that’s been happening on campuses across the country over the past few years has rested on holding our university accountable to the standards of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter. So, what now?
The answer is actually very simple: We do what we’ve always done. We persist. We continue to be loud. We continue to hold our universities accountable to the law, and we continue to demand policies that protect and support survivors. Ahead, is my letter to you, the survivors and the advocates still on campus today, and those that will be in the future.
I was raped on campus during the fall of my junior year. Afterwards, I did everything the “model sexual assault victim” should do: I went to the hospital, I gave my statement to the police, and I reported the assault to my university. I found a good therapist. I placed my trust in the system.
According to federal guidelines, my university had a responsibility to respond to my report quickly and effectively. But the reporting process was painful and drawn out. Over the subsequent months, I was repeatedly failed by the system I had trusted, as I struggled with non-communicative staff and circuitous policy which, more often than not, was not followed as it was written. The end result was a written determination from my university explaining that they found sufficient evidence that I had not given consent on the night I was raped. Regardless, my university ignored their legal obligation to address the misconduct and my rapist faced zero consequences.
Although I tried to press criminal charges, my case never went to court. In fact, campus police actively discouraged me from pressing criminal charges, stating that my case would never see the inside of a courtroom. Although Brock Turner has become the poster child for campus sexual assault, that case is actually more the exception than the rule. Witnesses are incredibly rare. The truth is, the vast majority of campus sexual assault cases boil down very little, if any, evidence that could be effective in a criminal trial. More often than not, it's the issue of effective consent that lies at the crux of the investigation, rather than the sexual contact itself.
For many of us then, treating campus sexual assault as a university misconduct policy infraction is the only available avenue for placing some distance between ourselves and our rapists. Universities can respond in ways that the legal system cannot, such as granting class or residence hall changes, campus no-contact orders, suspensions, and expulsions. These measures serve as tools for the university to allow the survivor to continue their education free from the burden of their experience, and for the survivor to work toward healing. The reasons universities can provide these options often come down to the preponderance of evidence standard required by the Obama administration's 2011 guidance on Title IX. University investigators are able to meet a lower standard of evidence than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, used in criminal proceedings. A preponderance of evidence standard means that the decision-maker must believe, based on the evidence at hand, that it is more likely than not that the policy violation occurred. This lower standard of evidence allows universities to respond to reports with suspensions or expulsions, rather than seeing all those cases thrown out in court.
Many people are uncomfortable with universities handling reports of sexual violence, claiming that criminal matters should be handled by criminal courts. However, off the top of my head, I can think of a number of crimes that also overlap with university policy and that are investigated and adjudicated by college administrators: underage drinking, possession and distribution of controlled substances, aggravated assault, robberies, and identity theft.
The other criticism lobbed at the campus system is that too often the schools’ processes violate due process for the accused. But that is not because of the 2011 guidance. The systems in place to investigate and adjudicate these crimes, particularly sexual assault, are deeply flawed and in need of improvement. We agree on that. As they stand, these systems too often fail all parties involved, because the universities are not held to a set of standards that ensure consistency and fairness for all involved. The solution to a flawed system, however, is not to pull the rug out from vulnerable people who are relying on it as a last resort. Instead, it must be to work to improve it for what it is: a way to evaluate and respond to violations of university policy.
Through the reporting process and beyond, I was fortunate to connect with other survivors who had similar experiences, who I could turn to for support, advice, and commiseration. The spring semester after my rape, several of us started an advocacy organization called 16(IX)3, which worked to improve the reporting process for the students that would inevitably follow us. Few of us saw immediate justice in our cases, but we knew that strengthening protections for survivors would help us make sense of our experiences and find healing. When I graduated this past May, I left behind a better system than the one I entered, and a new generation of advocates who were informed and equipped to tackle the challenges the next school year would bring.
Admittedly, it has been a difficult year to be a survivor. I am tired of Trump’s constant reinforcement of rape culture. I am tired of DeVos’ unabashed indifference towards survivors’ pleas to protect her predecessor's Title IX guidance. I am tired of having to justify myself and my experience to people who continuously choose to side with rapists and abusers, rather than the victims of sexual violence. But, in times like these, we truly have no choice but to serve as our own best advocates. Once again, we have to step up.
For every student today, it is more important than ever that you know your rights. If you experience sexual violence, whether that’s harassment or assault, your school still has to take your report seriously. They have to investigate and they still have to provide accommodations you may need so you can continue your education. If you are reporting a sexual assault and can afford to seek legal advice, do so. Free legal help may be available, either through lawyers offering pro-bono services or through your university’s law program. Educate yourself on your school’s policy and the state and federal legislation that might impact your case. Reach out to advocacy organizations like End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and RAINN. Unfortunately, we can no longer afford to trust our universities or, apparently, our government to operate in our best interests.
For those of us who love people who have experienced sexual violence, the greatest asset you have is your compassion. Be willing to listen. You may not know what to say in the moment, but what matters most is that you use the fear and disgust you feel on their behalf to drive us forward, to effect policy change and to advocate for those who have endured this harrowing experience, and those who will in the future.
Most importantly, we cannot forget what we are capable of. We are more resilient than we know, and stronger than we think. We will not be silenced, and we will not allow this policy decision to undo the progress we have made, both individually and collectively over the last six years. We are just learning to speak up, for ourselves and for others. As Vice President Joe Biden said, it’s on us to solve this problem, now more than ever.
Your colleague and friend,