OPINION: How Biden can fight sexual violence on U.S. campuses

by Sage Carson | @Sage_Gaea | Know Your IX
Tuesday, 17 November 2020 14:21 GMT

A group of demonstrators gather outside Founders Hall where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos delivered a major policy address on Title IX enforcement, which in college covers sexual harassment, rape and assault, at George Mason University, in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Biden’s Department of Education should work with student survivors of sexual violence on new regulations aimed at achieving Title IX’s intended goal – equity

Sage Carson is the manager of Know Your IX, a survivor- and youth-led campaign to end sexual and dating violence in schools. 

During my sophomore year of college, I was raped, joining the one in four women who are sexually assaulted while in college.

Sexual violence in education creates gaping inequities between students - it can be hard to learn if you share a classroom with your rapist or abusive partner.

In the months following my assault, my grades plummeted as I isolated myself in my apartment.

After I was placed on academic probation, which threatened my scholarship, I thought my only option was to drop out.

Currently, about one third of survivors drop out of school because of sexual violence and their institution’s mishandling of their complaints.

At its core, Title IX, a civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools, is meant to ensure equitable education access.

But almost 50 years after Title IX’s passage, students survivors still wait to see that promise actualized. As Know Your IX co-founder Dana Bolger shared:

“On my campus...students who experienced sexual or dating violence were discouraged from reporting, denied counseling and academic accommodations, and pressured to take time off. When I reported abuse to my school, I was told I should drop out, go home and take care of myself, and return when my rapist graduated. All of us were denied our right to learn free from gender violence.”

Courts have long agreed that Title IX requires schools to take action to address sexual violence––and previous administrations have issued guidance clarifying schools’ obligations to handle complaints of sexual misconduct.

But the Trump administration threw out these recommendations and issued formal regulations on Title IX that tilt the scales in favor of accused assailants, known as “respondents,” and schools––creating special rights exclusively for respondents in sexual harassment cases and making it easier for schools to sweep violence under the rug.

Luckily, a new administration could undo this harm.

Already, President-elect Joe Biden has promised a "quick end" to the Title IX regulation.

But undoing the regulation won’t be easy––rescinding and issuing a new rule could take up to two years––and prior guidance doesn’t meet the current needs of survivors.

Biden’s Department of Education (ED) should work closely with student survivors to issue new regulations aimed at achieving Title IX’s intended goal––equity.

The Biden administration should eliminate Education Secretary Betsy DeVos standard of harassment, which forces students to be denied access to their education before their school can intervene.

Instead, the department should establish a standard that ensures schools take action to stop harassment and its continued effects on a student’s education long before the survivor sees their grades drop or takes a leave of absence.

It’s essential for the future administration to ensure that schools address harassment and assault that interferes with a student’s ability to succeed in school, even if the violence occurred off-campus.

For too many survivors, sexual violence comes with a price tag –– a single rape can cost survivors between $87,000 to $240,776.

In the aftermath of violence, some survivors have to withdraw from class or are pushed out of school, losing tuition and risking increased student loan debt if they re-enroll.

To minimize the financial consequences of sexual violence, Biden’s administration should direct schools to provide tuition remission to students who are pushed out of school because of violence and discrimination. Further, Biden’s Education Department should ensure students have the right to free robust accommodations.

Equity in education also requires fair discipline processes that ensure no student is wrongly denied access to education.

Recent discussion of Title IX has focused on determining the rights of respondents in sexual harassment cases based on the belief that those students have been shortchanged.

But historically, students accused of sexual harassment have had no fewer rights than those accused of other misconduct.

Throughout her tenure, DeVos has singled out sexual harassment, creating special rights for respondents in sexual harassment cases––while rolling back prior guidance meant to stop discriminatory discipline broadly.

Rather than creating special protections for respondents in sexual harassment complaints, the Education Department should institute regulations that ensure fair discipline processes for all students.

This would stop biased discipline against students accused of misconduct and also prevent punishment of student survivors who report to their school seeking help––a horrifying growing trend in K-12 schools and colleges.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to ensure that no student is wrongly denied access to education.

But to do so, it must reject the false notion that justice for survivors is in tension with fair disciplinary processes.

The opportunity to learn is essential to a student’s ability succeed and achieve their dreams––and no one should be denied this opportunity because of violence or discrimination.