Speaking of Women's Rights: 09/17

Thursday, September 7, 2017

This Administration is Moving in the Wrong Direction on Campus Sexual Assault

By Olivia Ortiz

Title IX guarantees students an education free from sex discrimination. In 2011, the federal Department of Education clarified the application of this law in its Dear Colleague Letter, requiring schools to “take immediate action to eliminate . . .harassment [including sexual violence], prevent its recurrence, and address its effects.” This document provides crucial guidance as to what Title IX means in practice—that is, what sex-equal access to education actually looks like, for students, at schools.

Today, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s announcement that the Administration intends to make new rules rather than maintain the Dear Colleague Letter’s guidance, the principles and protections of Title IX are under threat. With no sexual assault survivors present and with very little input from people whose right to be free of gender discrimination in education is at risk, DeVos claimed that the current guidance does not adequately protect the rights of accused students.

I offer my experience as a student to illustrate the critical need for the principles in the Obama Administration’s guidance.

As a student at The University of Chicago, I first found myself reviewing my school’s sexual misconduct policy in 2012. While the policy was purported to have been written for students, it was confusing and internally inconsistent. In talks with the administration, even seasoned administrators failed to state what these policies actually were. A simple question persisted: what were our rights?

The Dear Colleague Letter concretely illustrates what the law affords by requiring policies and procedures that are equitable to all parties involved. An academic environment free from sex discrimination means equal access to: engaging in class, accessing campus resources, and participating in extracurricular activities, all without injury resulting from sexual violence. When such injuries occur, schools must address the violence promptly, with clear policies and effective remedies. It also prescribes basic measures that allow students to continue their education after experiencing violence. After trauma, access to counseling, increased security measures, and academic accommodations are often the difference between students thriving academically and dropping out. Finally, the Dear Colleague Letter requires that schools take preventative action in the form of trainings for faculty, staff, and students, so that all members of the campus community understand what their rights and responsibilities are.

The Dear Colleague Letter transforms a law into a concrete tool that students can wield for justice. Equipped with this guidance, my classmates at the University of Chicago and I demanded clear, centralized, and streamlined policies. These efforts have resulted in two policy overhauls and a user-accessible university website that actually communicates to students their rights at the university, civil, and federal levels. We demanded that our professors and classmates receive comprehensive training as to how to prevent and address sexual violence, resulting in mandatory Title IX training for the entire community. We showed survivors that they deserve more from their university than an incomprehensible webpage and illusory rights.

Title IX states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, . . . be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity . . . .” However, sex inequality in education does not live in statutory language alone. It walks with survivors as they pass their assailants on the quad; it sleeps with them in their dorms as their perpetrators lie rooms away; it sits with them in a dean’s office in mediations with their abusers. The Dear Colleague Letter gives voice to the violent realities of the very discrimination the statute prohibits.

But the Trump Administration is wrong if it believes today’s announcement will end the effort to prevent and address campus sexual assault. Title IX is still the law of the land and the Dear Colleague Letter only clarified what the law already provides. Survivors and advocates for their rights will not stop demanding the full protections of a law designed to make education free from discrimination, including gender-based violence.

Olivia Ortiz is a Legal Voice volunteer, currently serving as a member of the Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup. Olivia has been a leader on the Workgroup's soon-to-be-released project: a "Know Your Rights" resource for survivors of sexual assault on Washington State campuses.

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore