Update: Yesterday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she plans to change the Obama administration’s rules for investigating allegations of sexual violence on college campuses. DeVos says she believes the current system has "failed too many students."
This story was originally published on August 15, 2017.
When Ariana*, 20, was a freshman in college, she dated someone who "ended up being a lot meaner than I initially thought," she says, and so they broke up. Ariana started seeing someone else, and her ex began harassing her — calling her offensive names, and refusing to let it go, behavior that her dad, a police officer, told her could qualify the man for expulsion. Then, one of his roommates showed up at her house.
"I was afraid that I would walk in my front door, and they would all be sitting there," she says, of the fear that marred her earliest college experiences. Ariana used Title IX to get a no-contact order in place, so that her ex couldn't talk to her, and his roommates couldn't come to her apartment.
"After a week of not seeing him or hearing from him, it just flipped in my head," she says. "I thought, You're safe now, you don't have to worry."
When you hear "Title IX," you may think about female athletes in the '70s, fighting for their right to play sports at the same university level as their male peers — but the law covers so much more than that. Broadly speaking, Title IX is a civil rights law that ensures that students can go to school in an environment that's free from sex discrimination. Over the years, and especially thanks to Obama-era evolutions in the way Title IX is handled, it's become the best course of action for students seeking justice after experiencing sexual assault and harassment on campus, but detractors now say enforcement has gone too far.
The nuts and bolts of the law say that any school that receives federal financial assistance has to give all students the right to enroll in the classes and programs that they want, and participate in sports on a level playing field, regardless of their sex, says Anne Hedgepeth, vice president of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women (AAUW). "It also means that all students should be able to go to school in an environment free from sexual harassment and sexual violence," Hedgepeth says.
In the mid-'90s, Merrick Rossein, a professor at the CUNY School of Law, and his colleagues litigated one of the first school peer-to-peer sexual harassment cases under Title IX, ultimately clarifying the extent of the law. "In addition to educational opportunities, [we argued that] equal opportunities include being in a school place free from sexual harassment." Because, as we wrote in February: How can you be expected to focus on your studies if you're worried about your basic safety?
"In real, practical terms, schools are supposed to respond when there's an incident of sexual harassment or sexual violence," Hedgepeth says. "They're supposed to remedy the situation and prevent sexual harassment from happening again." Under Title IX, schools also have the responsibility to make accommodations to allow people to continue their education without enduring harassment or ongoing victimization, says Kristen Houser, MPA, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
If schools aren't getting Title IX right, then no one wins.
College is a difficult time for many people, and the process of pursing a criminal justice response for a sexual harassment case can be overwhelming, Houser says. "What Title IX can do is it can get you some protections in place much quicker than a disciplinary hearing or going to the criminal justice system." For example, a student has the right to have their housing or class schedule adjusted immediately, so that they don't have to interact with their attacker. They can also request that the attacker be removed from the class or dorm, depending on the situation.
Schools are also responsible for having a Title IX coordinator available to make sure that all cases are handled appropriately, Hedgepeth says, as it was in Ariana's case. "When things go wrong, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is supposed to be a backstop, or a place that you can go to when your school doesn't handle things correctly," Hedgepeth says. And unfortunately, that does happen.
Courtney*, 19, a sophomore, was raped by one of her classmates during the second month of her freshman year. She reported him to her Title IX coordinator, and got a no-contact order that prohibited her attacker from being in her dorm building. He later began dating another person who lived there, so he was around a lot. "He shouldn't have been allowed in my building at all," Courtney says. She sensed that her case hadn't been handled properly.
"I did so much research about Title IX, probably obsessively," she says. So when she was forced to go to mediation with her assailant, she knew that was against the latest guidance. One of Courtney's friends had been working in the department with her school's Title IX coordinator, and overheard administrators talking about her case. "They knew they weren't supposed to do the mediation, but he was begging for it," she said about her attacker.
One semester later, Courtney filed a Title IX complaint against her school. It's an arduous process that involves submitting a complaint to the DOE's civil rights office, and she knows they are inundated with reports from across the country. But still, she says, "I just felt like I couldn't sit there and not do something."
We only have Title IX, and yet colleges aren’t using it as much as they should.
"If the school hasn't provided academic accommodation for a survivor, I encourage those folks to speak to an attorney," says Alyssa Peterson, a policy and advocacy coordinator for Know Your IX, a survivor-led organization that aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools. Right now, there's an incredible opportunity for students to become advocates for Title IX at their school, she says.
The reason this moment is an opportunity for students to advocate for themselves — as Courtney did — is because, unfortunately, the current administration has pulled back its role in doing so.
During the Obama administration, the Department of Education took Title IX very seriously, and provided additional guidance for students and parents, Hedgepeth says. "That was really empowering, because we saw more students using their rights," she says. "We saw schools making efforts that they maybe should have been making for the 45 years that the law existed."
But as with life in general in the President Trump era, those priorities have changed. In a controversial interview with The New York Times, Candice E. Jackson, the head of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, said that the rights of the accused individuals in Title IX investigations deserve more attention than they receive. Last month, Betsy DeVos, Education Secretary, met with advocacy groups, including students accused of sexual assault, to hear their concerns about Title IX. "Time will tell what that really looks like, but there are certainly a lot of concerns that that is the direction we're now going in," Hedgepeth says.
And so, this crucial law to protect students almost needs to be enforced by those very students. "If schools aren't getting Title IX right, then no one wins," Hedgepeth says. "And that's not because of the law, that's because schools may not be doing right by their students [to enforce it]." She suggests students approach their school's president to inquire about the policies and procedures in place. "There’s not a lot that helps you seek justice for rape and sexual assault on campuses — Title IX is really all we’ve got," Courtney says. "We only have Title IX, and yet colleges aren’t using it as much as they should." In both her case and Ariana's, it was up to the survivor to be informed of her rights, and act on securing them.
Sharing their own stories is another way these women have fought to keep Title IX — and its crucial importance to students' rights and safety on campus — in conversation right now. For its part, Know Your IX helps survivors write and publish personal op-eds in local news outlets, and there are other ways to spread the word. Months after her incident, Courtney wrote and performed a slant poem about her rape at an event at her school. She says it was "one of the most life-changing experiences."
"If you feel brave enough, reporting is your best option, but be loud about it," she says. "The more noise you make, the more people will notice."
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).
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.