Sunday, April 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: I was a victim of campus rape, and we cannot let Title IX protections slip

Since her appointment as secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Betsy DeVos has hedged her support for Title IX enforcement, which protects gender equality in education.

DeVos' credibility was further undermined when Candice Jackson, who heads the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, made the egregious claim that 90 percent of campus sexual assault accusations "fall into the category of 'we were both drunk' " or are forms of post break-up retaliation. Jackson has since backed off from her statement, but her words demonstrate the attitudes about campus sexual assault at the current Department of Education. Coupled with the recent rollback of guidance protecting transgender students, an alarming pattern is emerging.

As a survivor of sexual violence on my college campus, I am deeply concerned that the DeVos-led Department of Education does not take this issue seriously. I was raped in my first semester of freshman year of college. Nearly a year later, I had a second traumatic experience due to the institutional indifference of my alma mater.

After I was assaulted, I reported the rape to my university's Title IX coordinator, as students are told to do. I needed to obtain a no-contact order against the perpetrator — a fellow student — who had continued bullying me and had made it difficult for me to continue my education. Shortly after formally reporting, I chose to pursue a disciplinary hearing in the hopes of achieving an outcome that would allow me to be safe on campus and end the ongoing harassment of the perpetrator and his friends. At this stage, the case was handed over to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities for the investigation.

That's when everything quickly went downhill. SRR did not adequately communicate with me or process the case in a timely manner, and the hearing was filled with missteps and violations of the university's own procedures. Ultimately, the outcome of the proceedings did not match the evidence. Just weeks after my hearing, I learned that the director of SRR had granted the man who raped me an exception to his already slap-on-the-wrist sanctions so that he could attend a fraternity party.

When I asked for an explanation, the director told me that I should "understand how difficult this process has been for him."

This institutional mistreatment added to the already difficult task of staying in school after being raped. You are never not exhausted. You are constantly on high alert out of fear of seeing the person who stole your faith in people and agency as a person. Visiting the library, going to class or participating in co-curriculars — the basic academic experience — become overwhelming. Sleep is filled with nightmares. You turn down invitations to parties or bars because you can never let your guard down.

My university should have done much more to support me. But without Title IX, I may not have been able to finish school at all.

Title IX required my university to do the bare minimum, which was enough to allow me to find my footing and succeed during my remaining time on campus and even graduate with a double major. If it weren't for Title IX, many academic institutions would do even less. They would not step up to support survivors or to provide an equitable complaint process. This is why institutions need to be held accountable, not just to students and survivors, but also by the federal government.

When the Department of Education published its 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, it signaled that the federal government was no longer going to accept schools' institutional indifference and mistreatment of survivors. The letter clarified and reinforced institutions' obligation to respond to reports and protect students and emphasized that they could not ignore the reality that sexual violence was and is occurring on their campuses. It also stated that Title IX provides rights to both parties and afforded particularly robust rights to accused students.

It has taken decades to make the progress that we have, toward a culture of believing and supporting survivors and appropriately responding to disclosures. We must continue moving forward on that foundation and not go back. This is personal. The Department of Education and Trump administration must know: Survivors will not be silenced. We want to share our stories with you. And above all, we want you to listen.

Maya Weinstein is an alumna of George Washington University and is currently a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. A native of Florida, she wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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