As Campus Sexual Assault Survivors, We Call on DeVos to Do Better

Two law students who survived campus sexual assault explain how Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education are poised to undermine Title IX.
September 11, 2018, 6:16pm
Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.

Under the leadership of Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education is considering new rules with which to adjudicate campus sexual assault claims. Yesterday, The New York Times reported that the DOE’s proposals under DeVos aim to decrease the amount of sexual assault investigations, which would save schools $327.7 million to $408.9 million over the next decade. However, in its rush to protect schools’ bottom lines, the Department of Education’s study ignored the interests of a critical group: survivors and their families.

Survivors will directly bear the costs of schools’ and the Education Department’s indifference. Within the current “red zone,” a period from August to November when more than 50 percent of campus sexual assaults take place, thousands of students will perpetrate sexual violence. Now, they can act with the confidence that they will avoid institutional accountability. In a few years, these perpetrators will graduate in droves and pursue their dreams; meanwhile, survivors will be forced to confront the psychological and financial consequences of campus violence for the rest of their lives.

Like over one fifth of college women, we had our undergraduate educations compromised by interpersonal violence. Now, we are both law students committed to social impact legal work, but our perpetrators’ violent actions during college—and our universities’ institutional complicity—still constrain the options we have to choose from in making some of life’s biggest decisions. One of us declined an admission offer at her top-choice law school because her perpetrator decided to matriculate there; the other was demoted at work and turned down for jobs due to the publicity around her assault. Although educational and career decisions should depend on qualifications and financial feasibility alone, the decisions our perpetrators and universities made years ago have defined our early careers.

Our stories are not unique. Survivors of campus sexual violence face significant psychological, educational, and financial barriers long after they graduate. Although Title IX, a federal civil rights law, requires educational institutions to respond promptly to violence and discrimination when it occurs, schools have routinely shirked their obligation to protect survivors’ right to equitable educational access. When campus violence goes unremedied in this respect, survivors face enduring challenges, not only at their undergraduate institutions, but throughout their professional and financial futures. This will worsen if the new proposals from Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education are implemented.

The mental health effects of sexual violence, augmented by schools’ indifference to that violence, can be particularly detrimental to survivors. Of women who have experienced rape, 94 percent report post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the two weeks immediately following the assault, and nearly one-third reported that symptoms still persisted nine months later. Living with PTSD can cause a survivor’s mind to intermittently dip back into traumatic moments without warning. Such interruptions unequivocally hinder focus and complicate academic success. When schools neglect to provide survivors with disability accommodations and free counseling as required under Title IX, their failure to comply with their legal obligations further compounds the academic effects of sexual violence and enables persistent educational inequities for survivors. The leaked proposed guidelines, which would let schools off the hook for Title IX violations that occur off-campus, could further disincentivize schools from providing critical accommodations to survivors.

The toll of sexual violence can also curtail students’ options for graduate and professional school. Survivorship is a strong indicator of decreases in grade point average, a metric that plays a significant role in students’ decisions about whether or not to drop out of college. Research shows that experiencing violence in the first semester of college more than doubles) a survivor’s risk of having a GPA below 2.5 in the subsequent semester. If a survivor’s academic performance suffers, they may lose scholarships and accrue more student loan debt. As many schools require students in specific majors to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher to qualify for standard graduate school admission requirements, staying enrolled as an undergraduate may force survivors to choose between changing their fields of study or giving up their visions of graduate school. These challenges are compounded by survivors’ potential fears of returning to a campus environment, the risk that their perpetrators will matriculate to the same graduate school, as was the case for one of us, and the dread of contending with PTSD symptoms in yet another academic program.

The longer-term career effects of campus violence are understudied, but research suggests that interpersonal violence has devastating impacts. Anecdotally, campus survivors have experienced job demotion or loss related to their assaults. Researchers have also found that 64 percent of women who have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV) report it has impacted their careers. Indeed, IPV is linked to fluctuations in employment and economic instability. Furthermore, women who survive sexual assault earn, on average, $6,000 less annually than those who have not been assaulted. In a world where women are only paid, depending on their race, between 54 and 87 cents on a man’s dollar, survivorship adds yet another card to the deck stacked against full gender and racial equity. Indeed, DeVos’s proposed rules would disproportionately harm Native American, Black, and LGBTQ students, who already report greater rates of sexual violence in college than their peers.

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Survivors suffer the impacts of campus violence long after their undergraduate days have ended. In our cases, we have watched our perpetrators eschew accountability for harming us and go on to gain admission to prestigious graduate programs. Meanwhile, we continue to feel the ripple effects of their discrimination in every major educational and professional decision we make. Now, with yet another red zone in full swing, DeVos and her Department of Education are using proposed rules to exacerbate the psychological, academic, and financial suffering of student survivors. In light of this callousness, schools have a greater duty now than ever to acknowledge that the stakes of their institutional failures with regard to Title IX are much higher than widely recognized. In protecting schools’ bottom lines, DeVos will strip survivors of their futures.

Sarah Nesbitt is a policy and advocacy coordinator at Know Your IX and a first-year student at Georgetown University School of Law.

Alyssa Leader is a former legal fellow at End Rape On Campus and a second-year student at the University of North Carolina School of Law.