On September 7, 2013, during my first week of college, I was raped by another student. I had just turned 18, and I had never had sex before.
My hallmates figured out something had happened. At first, everything happened quickly: Before I knew it, I was crying in my resident assistant's room; shuffled between counselors and police investigators; dressed in a hospital gown as nurses took pictures of the bruises. I was moved to a different dorm, a campus investigation began, and college administrators told me I didn't need a private attorney. Campus police said the District Attorney wouldn't pursue a criminal case.
Then time slowed down: Administrators said their investigation would take thirty days, so I waited thirty days. Then I waited longer. I waited the whole year. Meanwhile, I tried to study, but I struggled to concentrate, and I couldn't understand why. I got D's in my classes. Finally, during spring finals, they called me in. My school decided to suspend him.
We both appealed the suspension. I never found out his reasoning, but I knew mine: I cited the university judicial process handbook, which deemed suspension appropriate for non-sexual assault and property theft valued at less than $500. Expulsion was appropriate for more "more serious assault" and property theft valued at more than $500. My medical bills alone dwarfed that sum.
The decision remained unchanged, and, after a quiet semester, he returned to campus. We were enrolled in a small program together, so I saw him everywhere. During that time, I couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't see. After two years, I finally accepted that I could not achieve my dreams at my dream school alongside my rapist. I left, and he stayed.
It's been two years since I chose to leave, and this fall I began classes at another university.
On September 7, 2017, exactly four years from the date of my rape, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a televised speech on Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex for schools that receive federal funding. In 2011, the Obama administration had released a "Dear Colleague" letter, clarifying schools' responsibilities under the law to investigate sexual assault reports and ensure that campuses are free from sexual violence. Advocates hailed the move as a huge step forward for protecting the rights of all students and ensuring better safety on campus. In her speech, DeVos criticized the guidance and campuses like mine for being too harsh on accused rapists. "The truth is that the system established by the prior administration has failed too many students," she said. Despite everything I had prepared for, I was astounded and crushed. I felt alone again after all these years.
DeVos' speech foreshadowed her policy change, which was announced on Friday: The department rescinded Obama-era policies meant to protect survivors of sexual assault. DeVos withdrew Obama's "Dear Colleague" letter and released interim guidance, eliminating the department's requirement that schools investigate sexual misconduct claims based on a "preponderance of evidence" standard, giving schools the option to put a higher burden of proof on survivors. She also eliminated survivors' right to appeal and Obama's sixty-day timeline for investigating claims, making it easier for schools to drag their feet on cases like mine.
When I heard this, I knew that Betsy DeVos has lost sight of Title IX's mission, which is to ensure that students have equal access to education. DeVos' actions change the disciplinary proceedings for sexual assault so that they're now potentially more traumatizing for victims than criminal trials. In the new interim guidance, it appears that DeVos has ended the Obama-era ban on direct cross-examination, which protected students, who may not be represented by lawyers in the campus system, from being directly questioned by their accused rapist.
After my assault, I found it difficult to breathe or think clearly after seeing my rapist in a hallway. I cannot begin to imagine how I might have reacted to sitting in a room with him, where he would have been free to directly question me about my rape. Without basic protections like this in place, other survivors may be discouraged from coming forward at all.
"We cannot accept this as the status quo."
Under Title IX, schools must provide prompt and equitable disciplinary proceedings to both parties. However, DeVos's interim guidance gives schools the option to allow only the accused the right to appeal. By permitting schools to provide certain rights only to the accused—as well as for allowing longer timelines for investigating complaints—DeVos is signaling that schools should disregard core principles of the Title IX mandate.
But we cannot accept this as the status quo. If our government willfully disregards our human rights and endorses rape myths, our college campuses must do the work to stand up for the rights of all students. A number of institutions have already taken the promising step of announcing that they will maintain existing policies.
We desperately need other schools to follow their lead. We must call on college and university administrators today to uphold the values of their institutions by preserving our hard-fought progress. A number of alumni groups are writing letters to their college administrators asking for them to explicitly commit to protecting survivors. I ask you to reach out to your alumni networks and sign these letters.
I know what it's like to feel unsafe and isolated on your own university campus, and I cannot imagine how it would feel to navigate the aftermath of a sexual assault without the Obama-era protections that were afforded to me. I don't want to think about the silence, fear, and pain that future students will endure if we do not take action today. We have no other choice but to fight.