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.
As student activists committed to combating sexual and intimate-partner violence, my peers and I will continue doing our part to insist that violence is unjustifiable. We will call out those who are complicit or complacent in the face of interpersonal violence because we will accept nothing short of a world where every student can pursue their education in an environment free from violence.
We ask that Secretary DeVos do the same. Unfortunately, she has instead chosen to scale back investigations into public universities’ systemic failures to comply with Title IX. This decision fails to recognize that perpetrator accountability is inextricably tied to campus accountability. When the government fails to do its part, the pernicious cycle of entitlement seeps into powerful institutions, nursing a cycle that resists change. Just like individual perpetrators, universities feel their own entitlement: to an impeccable public image, often at the expense of survivors’ testimonies. And when universities experience negligible disapproval from institutions above them, their decision to de-prioritize victims is tacitly validated. The script, once again, proceeds on repeat.
This is not to say the “Dear Colleague” letter is enough. In fact, in some cases it didn’t do its job on my campus. The memory of a serial perpetrator on my campus still lands like a punch in the chest, one that knocks the wind out of me. He used our campus as his hunting ground without accountability. Despite this, his reputation remained pristine. He was known as an advocate for social justice, a brilliant thinker, a scholar in multiple academic programs, a popular resident adviser, fraternity member, and mentor for younger students, and many professors’ favorite. He wasn’t known as a serial perpetrator of violence against many of his close friends and intimate partners.
When one survivor reported to the school that he had made unwanted sexual advances, physically assaulted her, and threatened to take her life and his own, the school offered (among several options) mediation, a non-punitive method of resolution that the “Dear Colleague” letter expressly discourages in cases of sexual violence. She agreed, after a friend of the perpetrator spoke to her. She found out later that her assaulter had done the same to at least three different women before the report and at least one more after it, but the university still did not hold him accountable. He graduated that spring with honors and a full-time job. Now, whenever he goes back to visit campus, an informal phone tree of his survivors and their allies shares information about his location in order to avoid retriggering their traumas. How much, I wonder, has his entitlement ballooned post-graduation, now that no institution other than law enforcement—which is often hostile to survivors—can hold him accountable?
Stopping investigators from examining schools’ systemic failures to protect survivors’ civil rights not only rolls back progress, it encourages institutional negligence. Widespread disregard for systemic inequity is the very same mechanism that has allowed decades of racist, classist, transphobic, and otherwise discriminatory attitudes to prevail in our schools. When systems of accountability falter, those who perpetuate inequity grow stronger. To halt investigations into universities’ chronic mishandling of sexual assault cases sends a message to those who feel entitled already: To the Department of Education, accountability is not a priority. And survivors will face the brunt of that blow.
Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration cannot purport to value the rights of survivors if they refuse to address the lack of institutional accountability that fuels sexual violence in the first place. They must not ignore but improve upon the “Dear Colleague” letter. They must work to hold schools accountable, so future students can look back and measure their time on campus with a metric other than violence.
None of the information in this piece comes from the author’s experience on the confidential sexual assault helpline. All details are shared with the permission of the survivors.
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at email@example.com.