Among the more surprising things in the Trump Administration’s latest budget proposal is that it includes multiple requests for increased funding for the Office on Violence Against Women, including for programs dedicated to researching gender-based violence, rape kit testing programs, grant programs for domestic violence, and prison rape. Among the (many) areas facing cuts? The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which investigates charges against schools for mishandling sexual assault claims and Title IX violations.
This is happening at a time when Me Too is shaping up to be not just a “moment” but an “era.” The tidal shift in our culture has everyone from Steve Bannon to Ruth Bader Ginsburg convinced of its staying power and revolutionary potential. But not everyone affected by sexual violence is feeling so hopeful — namely campus survivors and activists, many of whom are feeling more abandoned than anything else, at a time when they need all the help they can get.
“It feels to me that the fierce urgency that our society felt to address campus sexual assault over the past couple of years is fading in a moment when that urgency is needed more than ever,” says Jess Davidson, interim executive director of End Rape On Campus.
“Overall my reaction to Me Too is that it’s amazing. But colleges aren’t even being talked about while Title IX is being attacked,” says one sexual assault survivor, a junior at Notre Dame University, who asked not to be named because her complaint is ongoing. “When it first started happening [last fall] I was really in the middle of the process of reporting my assault and I felt so much less alone. But now it’s frustrating because I think the campus specifically is just being kind of left out of the conversation.”
Just a few weeks before the New York Times exposed Harvey Weinstein and launched an avalanche of high-profile predators losing status and paychecks, Sec. of Education Betsy DeVos withdrew a 2011 memo on Title IX enforcement that the Obama administration put in place. At the same time, the department also replaced a 2014 question-and-answer document that clarified school obligations under the Title IX anti-discrimination law with interim guidance that loosens protections for accusers and strengthens protections for the accused. Among other things, the new guidance allows schools to use a higher evidentiary standard, encourages mediation if all parties agree to it, and limits access to an appeals process to accused students only. It also says that schools face “no fixed time frame” to complete an investigation, which, to advocates, seemed a clear invitation for school’s to return to the old practice of simply doing nothing about a complaint. The Obama-era guidance said schools had to do everything they could to resolve an investigation in 60 days, and falling short of that, communicate with all parties about any delays.
“We're going backwards in that all these protections for survivors are being withdrawn and instead the focus is on protecting accused students,” says Carly Mee, a staff attorney at SurvJustice, a non-profit that provides legal aid to campus sexual assault survivors. SurvJustice is also one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit arguing that DeVos’ rule changes violate federal law by discriminating against accusers. "Title IX is not designed to protect accused students. Accused students already have protections in place like due process and those who advocate for Title IX are just as much in favor of due process protections. So that's not the issue. The issue is that Title IX was designed to protect those who are being discriminated against, so to then flip it on its head and protect an entirely different class of people, and in doing so discriminate against those who are already marginalized, is very problematic.”
Another frustrating issue for campus survivors is that the era’s rallying cry “Believe Women” still doesn’t seem to apply to them. “Frankly, [the mood is] still just like: It’s a drunken mistake or just a misinterpretation and this specifically seems to be sticking to college-age women,” says Raechel Liska, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2015 and is pursuing a Title IX complaint against the school, stemming from a sexual assault she experienced as a student. “There’s this attachment between partying and being young for college survivors and somehow that makes them less able to differentiate between sexual assault and sex? It honestly seems like age discrimination.”
Advocates argue that leaving behind the issue of campus sexual assault and Title IX protections is a grave mistake. “Abusers get their start at the campus level, so it's frustrating for those of us doing this work to see it ignored when if we can stop it sooner and we can protect students, we can protect a lot more people,” Mee says.
An estimated one in five female students will have experienced sexual assault, which includes nonconsensual touching to rape, by the time they graduate college. LGBTQ students may face even higher rates: The most recent American Association of Universities’ Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that trans and gender-nonconforming individuals experienced the highest incidence of rape: 12.8% versus 10.8% for undergraduate cis women.
But incidence numbers are not the same thing as what’s actually being reported and investigated by schools. The AAU estimates only 28% of incidences of sexual assault or misconduct are reported. “We already have a situation where students are afraid to come forward. We know that it’s vastly under-reported,” says Neena Chaudhry, Associate General Counsel and Senior Advisor of Education for the National Women’s Law Center. “It’s all the more reason schools have to do their part to encourage students to come forward. But the Department of Education is sending the message right now that accused students are much more important.”
Davidson adds that it’s not even just about college campuses, but about education policy for K-12 schools as well. “People don’t learn how to harass someone from the employee handbook. They learn it in schools. It really does start with the boy snapping the girls bra strap. That’s a middle school behavior,” she says. “We can’t let this fade into the background, otherwise it’s a huge missed opportunity. We have to be committed to this if we’re really committed to solving sexual violence at large.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).