Title IX requires universities to protect students from "hostile environments" on campus—which can be interpreted as both raping someone and publicly accusing someone of rape.
On May 29, 2015, Kyra Grantz received a letter from the University of Chicago, where she was a senior. The letter, marked "Personal and Confidential" would tell Grantz whether or not she had to attend graduation with her alleged rapist. Or so she thought.
"Don't let him be at graduation," Grantz had pleaded the day before at her hearing with the school's disciplinary committee, which would adjudicate her case. "I don't want to see him walk on that stage."
When Grantz opened the letter, she was shocked to read the verdict: Her assailant had been found "responsible for sexual misconduct." Grantz, as it turned out, was an exception. Of the 15 complaints of sexual assault at the school that school year, only two had gone to hearing. And only Grantz's assailant had been found "responsible."
Yet there was nothing in the letter about punishment, or about graduation. Instead, it concluded, "While the no-contact directive remains in place, there is no other relevant information for you." After the exhausting and painful process of rehashing what had happened to her before a committee, she wasn't even entitled to know what would happen to her rapist.
It would take an article published in the school newspaper, months later, to reveal the outcome: He had been given a "warning," the lightest possible punishment.
Part of the reason, Grantz would later find out, was Title IX.
Title IX was first introduced in 1972 to prevent gender discrimination in education. But in 1980, after the court case Alexander v. Yale, universities were forced to take responsibility for the "hostile environment" created by sexual assault on campus. By reinterpreting campus rape as an educational problem rather than just a criminal one, the federal government gave American universities a new role to prosecute and prevent rapes.
In many ways, Title IX has helped campus rape victims—like Lisa Simpson, a University of Colorado student who won a $2.5 million settlement in 2007 after she was gang raped on campus and sued the university under Title IX. But Title IX has also been used as a weapon against those it was meant to protect, particularly victims of sexual assault.
Universities are required to investigate, prosecute, and punish perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault—but "there's no official governmental regulation on what every policy should be," Penny Venetis, vice president at Legal Momentum, the oldest legal advocacy group for women in the United States, told VICE.
The resulting sexual assault policies, based on government guidances, are pseudo-legalistic, using euphemistic terms like "sexual misconduct" instead of "sexual assault" and "respondent" instead of "alleged rapist." Punishments are also at the discretion of the university.
"It's easier for you to get kicked out of school for stealing or for plagiarism than it is for sexually assaulting someone." — Penny Venetis
A spokesperson from the University of Chicago told VICE the university "responds to all complaints of sexual misconduct" and provides students with information about all of the "options open to them, including the option to make a report to the Chicago Police Department, and resources including academic and housing accommodations if needed."
Grantz said she filed a police report, but that the case is still open and no progress has been made. She decided to report the rape through the University of Chicago system because she wanted the school to block her assailant from graduation, and she figured it would be an easier process, since the school only needs to be 51 percent sure the crime has occurred to deem someone "responsible."
But doing so also meant she had to abide by the University of Chicago's confidentiality policy, meaning she was not allowed to talk about her hearing or publicly name the student she'd accused. The policy also states that "unnecessary or indiscreet disclosures may be viewed as retaliatory" and that retaliation will be "treated as another possible instance of harassment or discrimination"—the very thing Title IX protects.
A spokesperson from the University of Chicago told VICE that university's confidentiality provisions "follow federal guidance on confidentiality," which is true. According to Venetis, this type of policy is "typical." Tufts University, for example, states that both accused and accuser "should be mindful about with whom they discuss the pending adjudication, as over-sharing can result in unintended consequences such as retaliation, the creation or exacerbation of a hostile environment, and may damage the credibility and integrity of witnesses or information relevant to the resolution of the complaint."
Lydia Pazienza, a senior at the University of Chicago who reported being raped eight weeks after Grantz, told VICE she never felt like she had a right to talk about what had happened to her because of these policies. "I'm actually kind of hesitant to talk about [the hearing]. I don't want it to be viewed as retaliation. The university seems to have an easier time punishing people for things that aren't sexual assault."
The University of Chicago's disciplinary report from the 2014–2015 school year—which does not include Pazienza's case, as it occurred during the summer—shows that the harshest punishment that year (expulsion) was given to someone found responsible for ghostwriting, while the weakest (a warning) was given to someone found responsible for rape.
"It's easier for you to get kicked out of school for stealing or for plagiarism than it is for sexually assaulting someone," said Venetis. "There's a certain culture of complacency surrounding sexual assault."
A spokesperson from the University of Chicago declined to comment on the the disparity in punishment.
These policies are perfectly legal, but they're still painful to victims, according to Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford University and an advocate of Title IX enforcement. "It makes the school look like it's trying to protect itself and putting its reputation above academic freedom, which a university should never do," she told VICE.
Dauber said campus sexual assault cases can also be undermined by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a law originally created to protect student education records, which universities can use to obscure the results of sexual assault hearings. In Grantz's case, it's the reason she wasn't told about the punishment for her assailant. One critic even suggested the law had been transformed into the "Federal Rapists Protection Act."
In some ways, Grantz says going through the university's Title IX procedures was more painful than doing nothing. Not only was she restricted from speaking about her case, but in the end, the university failed to give her rapist an actual punishment. Grantz graduated alongside her assailant, six days after he was found responsible for her rape.
Pazienza, meanwhile, has been promised that her assailant won't be at her graduation ceremony next week, on June 11.
"A lot of what gets interpreted as nefariousness often is just incompetence," said Dauber. "No magic wand is coming to take away from colleges the obligation to investigate [sexual assault], so what we ought to do is focus our attention on how to make them better. One way we can do that is with transparency. If the public could see how this is really going, then you would get public and political pressure for them to get better."
Pazienza, who has refused to stay silent about her rape, agreed. "I don't think that if you keep something entirely silent and in a box that it can get any better."
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