I applied to Washington University’s campus helpline in the fall of my freshman year, after spotting a recruitment flyer on the back of a bathroom-stall door. For four years, I spoke with survivors who could not bear to walk down their dorm hallways because their rapist lived two doors away. I learned that it’s hard enough to sit through class when you’re dealing with the internal turmoil that dogs you in the aftermath of sexual assault, but that it’s even harder to succeed in your education—or even meet your own basic needs—when your rapist is your neighbor. I listened to survivors debate whether they should abandon their dreams of medical school because the trauma of their assault made focusing on organic chemistry impossible.
Many of the helpline calls sounded similar to conversations I had with my own friends. Like the friend who told me she felt unsafe because her perpetrator was in the same 20-person program as her. That meant that every semester she had at least one class, and sometimes up to four, with him over the course of her schooling. Sitting in the room with the man who sexually assaulted her became a graduation requirement.
In fact, it’s not difficult to measure my time in college in acts of violence committed against my friends.
I know this is not uncommon; students across the country could jot down detailed lists of assaults nearly identical to mine. Campus sexual violence happens when a perpetrator feels entitled to power and control. If they act on it and experience zero or negligible disapproval from their peers and school administrators, their actions seem permissible, even validated. And so the script repeats, as it did every year while I was in school, and as it does every year on virtually every campus coast to coast.
Such a systemic problem demands a national response, yet instead of calling out institutional and cultural indifference, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has written about eliminating the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, a critical aspect of the federal government’s commitment to join activists in breaking this cycle. The letter outlines the obligation of any university receiving federal funding to protect students against gender-based violence, including, among other stipulations, the obligation to provide survivors accommodations in areas such as housing, academics, and mental-health services.
I’ve seen how the “Dear Colleague” letter can make a difference. This past March, just weeks before graduation, one of my closest friends was raped by a classmate in my bedroom. Before that night, one last finals period stood between her and graduation. After, panic attacks, insomnia, and depression made the diploma seem impossible. She disclosed to the director of the campus Relationship & Sexual Violence Prevention Center (RSVP Center), who then contacted her professors about academic accommodations. Despite agreeing to the director’s request, one professor personally e-mailed my friend, telling her that he needed more information before he would consider making accommodations. Luckily, she knew her rights as a student survivor. She notified the RSVP Center director, who explained to the professor that his request was not appropriate, and that under Title IX he must grant reasonable accommodations. She was able to graduate on time with honors.