As the latest graduation season came and went this past spring, the traditional mortarboards worn by graduates were adorned with a new addition—bright red tape spelling “IX.” Simultaneously referencing the gender-equity provision Title IX and red-tape bureaucracy, students from Brown, Stanford and many schools in between came together in repeating a rallying cry: “Red tape won’t cover up rape.”
The refrain and accompanying red-tape tactic were originally used at Columbia University in 1999 and 2000, when a group of twenty-three students took federal action against their school for what they viewed as a systematic failing to support survivors of sexual assault. In addition to their federal complaint, activists plastered the names of accused rapists in bathroom stalls across campus and tried to stage a protest at an event for prospective students, which was promptly shut down.
Despite the decade that has passed since the original Columbia protests, one in five women are still sexually assaulted while in college, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In response to the campus sexual assault epidemic, which President Obama deemed an affront to decency and humanity, the Obama administration formed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January, with a comprehensive report titled “Not Alone.” It has four main goals: to identify the scope of campus sexual assault; to help prevent sexual assault; to ensure that schools are responding effectively when sexual assault does happen; and to enhance federal enforcement efforts.
Vice President Joe Biden recently explained the need for increased involvement from the White House and told Time: “If you knew your son had a 20 percent chance of being held up at gunpoint, you’d think twice before dropping your kid off. Well, my God, you drop a daughter off, it’s one in five she could be raped or physically abused? It is just outrageous.”
In 1990, the government began its first large-scale effort to address the college sexual assault epidemic by passing the Clery Act. The law, which is also known as the “Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act,” was passed by Congress after Jeanne Clery, a student at Lehigh University, was raped and murdered in her college dormitory. It specifies procedures that colleges must follow regarding resources and treatment of sexual assault survivors. A student who believes his or her school has violated the provisions set forth by the Clery Act can file a report anonymously to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Unlike the Clery Act, however, complainants of Title IX cannot maintain anonymity. Title IX is a more recent addition to the toolkit students can use against their schools if they believe it to be mishandling claims of sexual assault. Under the Obama administration, the muscle behind Title IX’s application to sexual violence has been strengthened. What was once known primarily for its part in reducing gender inequality in college sports is now being used to combat sexual violence on college campuses.
The Department of Education sent a letter to colleges across the country in 2011 warning them that inadequate responses to sexual assault allegations would constitute violations of Title IX, and, potentially, loss of federal funding. On May 1, 2014, the Department of Education released for the first time the list of schools under investigation for failing to comply with Title IX. The list includes fifty-five colleges and universities. Although the White House task force and its report have been met with enthusiasm from anti-sexual assault activists, its recommendations will ultimately go unimplemented in many schools unless they are mandated by law. For that to happen, Congress needs to take action. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are leading efforts, but will need support from their colleagues in Congress to turn any of their ideas into law. For now, students and young people across the country are the ones making substantive improvements on their college campuses to stop sexual assault before it happens, and to ensure that when it does, schools are helping survivors, not their own reputations.
A Culture in Crisis
On the 168-acre campus that straddles the Charles River outside Boston, Vanessa (a pseudonym), an undergraduate student at MIT, is anxiously preparing to present at a poster session required for class. As Vanessa stands next to her 5′ x 3′ poster a professor approaches, and her presentation comes and goes, but the professor isn’t done yet. “Why are you such a bad presenter?” he asks. “Were you abused as a child?”
While Vanessa refrains from responding, her professor continues anyway, reasoning to himself aloud that she couldn’t have been abused as a child because she had turned out “normal.” Vanessa has nightmares so vivid that she once fell out of her bed in terror and injured her back. But for Vanessa, the nightmares aren’t only at night. She frequently has panic attacks and experiences symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She no longer enjoys an active social life like the one she used to have. These days, she doesn’t even like talking to people all that much. She has trouble recognizing herself as the same person she was before.
Before she was in an abusive relationship where she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped. Before she tried to get academic accommodations from MIT and found herself neck-deep in an abyss of bureaucracy that seemed more worried about protecting itself than protecting her. It took her a long time to realize that their relationship was neither normal nor acceptable. While her assaulter doesn’t go to her school, it was in the classroom where she made the connection. After learning more about sexual assault in college, she began to see parallels between what she was learning about and her own relationship.
“Whoa, this is really creepy,” she thought to herself. “A lot of this stuff is sexual assault. That’s rape.” The relationship ended soon after. She started experiencing panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD that made it harder and harder for her to keep up with her classwork. She went to MIT’s Student Support Services, or S3, as many MIT students call it. “I wanted to make sure I could get academic accommodations,” she explained. “The end result was not that I got help but that I got reported to a bunch of other offices,” Vanessa said about her experience with Student Support Services. Still, at one of her meetings with S3, she decided to bring along her academic adviser. “Oftentimes, things don’t go well for you in meetings,” she said. So she wanted a third-party representative to be present at the meeting.
Two days after the meeting, she got a call from the Dean of Student Support Services telling her she could no longer speak to her adviser about anything related to her sexual assault. The dean said it would be a “conflict of interest” for the adviser. The professor couldn’t properly advise her on class choices while simultaneously helping her fight to get the academic resources she needed, he told her. “I mostly just lost my right to speak to my adviser,” she said. “We are forbidden from speaking.” Her professor received the same call. Vanessa suspects the dean chose to call rather than say, email, so there would be no physical record of the message. She eventually filed a Clery report, which is different than making a Title IX claim. A Clery report allows the petitioner to maintain anonymity and is more about systematic failings of a school’s treatment and resources for survivors of sexual assault. Title IX addresses specific complaints and requires the complainant to give his/her name. Vanessa chose to use the Clery Act because she wants to go to graduate school at MIT and thought that a public Title IX complaint would hurt her admission chances.
“After I filed my complaint, not much happened,” she said. She wrote an anonymous article for MIT Tech, the campus newspaper. She’s heard that the Department of Education requested information from MIT, which she interprets as a positive signal that something is happening. “I was expecting very little and I got very little,” Vanessa said. She remains frustrated at how convuleded the system is, and how it doesn’t seem like it’s designed to actually help students like her, but instead to protect the school from liability. “You basically need to go in with a copy of Title IX and highlighted sections,” she said. She adds that she was lucky she knew that going in but isn’t sure what other people would do in similar situations.
“I don’t know how many other students need help but don’t know anything,” she said. In the end, it seems like Vanessa made all the right choices. She knew the difference between a Clery report and a Title IX claim and was able to protect her anonymity on campus as well as her chances at graduate school. She brought her adviser with her to one of her meetings to serve as a witness in case anything went awry.
The Department of Education seems like it’s investigating MIT, at least partly as a result of the report she filed. Still, she says, she does have one regret: bringing an untenured professor to her meeting. “I probably should have brought a tenured professor,” she said. She’s worried about the effect this could have on his career. He hasn’t said anything to Vanessa to indicate such, but then again, he’s not allowed to. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the system as well as Vanessa.
A Call to Action
There was no one scandal that prompted Nowmee Shehab, 22, to become heavily engaged in efforts at Emory University to create a supportive environment for survivors of sexual assault. She readily acknowledges that she doesn’t have a single, all-encompassing answer to the question of why she first got involved.
Elizabeth Neyman, 21, will be a senior at Emory this year and said that she “noticed that there weren’t adequate resources for survivors” and “wanted to be a part of the solution.” Still, it was more of a gradual recognition than a striking epiphany. Both got involved not because of a specific horrific incident or a less-than-adequate university response, but instead because they both saw a widespread issue and were determined to make a difference A series of high-profile colleges and universities mishandling reported sexual assaults, the newly created White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, and strong organizing efforts from students across the country thrusted the issue of campus sexual assault into the national spotlight.
Shehab and Neyman are, just two of the many students who have capitulated their campuses into action. Still, the tangible changes they have produced, alongside the less tangible but no less important transformations in conversations and attitudes, show the change-making power of millennials. Neyman, for one, helped organize a group on her campus called Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA). Just a few years after the group’s inception, they’ve trained nearly 2,000 students on what to say, what not to say, and how to support survivors of sexual assault. That figure is all the more impressive considering that SAPA almost never existed. When its founders originally approached Emory’s student government to become a chartered organization, they were asked skeptically asked what made their club different from another group on campus that focused on prevention efforts. SAPA concentrates on helping survivors, but some members of the student government weren’t buying it. Eventually, they were able to convince the hesitant members of the student government, and SAPA was born.
Shehab, meanwhile, was a coordinator for RespectCon, an annual conference at Emory that focuses on sexual violence. Originally founded in 2013, this year’s conference was themed “Sexual Violence Prevention through a Social Justice Lens.” Simultaneously, Shehab led efforts to increase conversations about sexual assault within Emory Pride and worked as a programming assistant at the Center for Women on campus. Neyman helped reform Emory’s sexual misconduct process. Originally, the same people who decided if a student who was caught cheating or imbibing would be suspended also dealt with sexual assault charges. The new policy changes this, because the intricacy of sexual violence requires that people be familiar with the subject to handle it well. Additionally, Neyman has worked with Emory University Hospital, which serves tens of thousands of patients in the Atlanta area each year, to ensure that survivors of sexual assault who come to the hospital will have the resources they need. Starting in August, Emory University Hospital will offer increased resources to every survivor of sexual assault that walks through its doors.
Neyman and SAPA are also pushing for minimum sanctions on students who are found guilty of sexual assault. The typical sentence, she noted, is a one-semester suspension, and no one convicted of sexual assault has been expelled in the last nine years. Of course, processes aren’t everything. Neyman said that survivors of sexual assault have emailed administrators asking if their assaulters were returning to campus, only to be repeatedly ignored. That’s why Neyman and other activists have worked hard to transform attitudes on campus, because changes in policy, while an important and necessary step, will not solve everything. Shehab agrees that there’s still room for improvement.
“Rape culture is not something people think about a lot,” she said. She points out the irony that many people feel comfortable telling a rape joke, but not talking about consent. “There’s still a stigma attached to talking about consent,” she said. Problems like these are why the recent report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is so important. While Neyman noted that she has already worked on implementing some of the recommendations from the task force, she also said that the she “has never felt this affirmed or validated.” Shehab, who’s spending the summer interning for Representative. David Cicilline (D-RI) through the Victory Congressional Internship program, said it’s “really awesome that the White House acknowledged the severity of the issue.”
Although the issue is attracting more and more attention across the spectrum, from the White House and others, Shehab noted that “it’s not like sexual violence has just increased. It’s always been there.” Despite this fact, it’s hard to ignore the recent increase in awareness, media attention and government resources being devoted to the issue. And when you ask yourself why, it’s difficult to imagine similar progress being made without the efforts of young people like Neyman and Shehab, who have helped propel campus sexual assault into the national discourse. While Shehab is still figuring out what she plans on doing after graduation, she’s sure that she’ll remain involved with the issue. “Everyone is affected by sexual violence. And it’s everyone’s job to prevent it,” she said.
A New Generation of Leaders
Dana Bolger, 23, wasn’t aware of the ins and outs of sexual assault reporting policy when she was raped and stalked by a fellow student while attending Amherst College. “When I went to report to my college dean, he encouraged me to go home, get a job at Starbucks, wait for my assailant to graduate, and then return to campus when it was safe,” Bolger said. “In other words: to take time off from my education so that my rapist could comfortably conclude his. At the time, I thought that what my dean said wasn’t particularly nice or ethical, but I didn’t know it was also against the law.” That’s what Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, 24, set out to fix when they founded Know Your IX, an organization created about a year ago.
The organization is a campaign that, according to its website, aims to “educate all college students in the U.S. about their rights under Title IX. Armed with information, sexual violence survivors will be able to advocate for themselves during their schools’ grievance proceedings and, if Title IX guarantees are not respected, file a complaint against their colleges with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.” Both Bolger and Brodsky, along with many members of the Know Your IX staff, are survivors. While Know Your IX is both run and driven by survivors, Bolger says they’re also trying to expand the movement to include more queer survivors, survivors of color and survivors from different strata of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Bolger graduated from Amherst this year and now works for Know Your IX full-time. Brodsky, who graduated from college in 2012, balances her studies as a student at Yale Law School with serving as the other founding co-director of Know Your IX. Although the organization is in its infancy, its founders have been incredibly successful in garnering attention from the media and the public at large, making concrete strides in public policy surrounding campus sexual assault and, most importantly, providing survivors of sexual assault with the information and resources they need to make informed choices.
“Schools are treating this as a PR problem, as an image risk to be swept away so that, in the high-stakes games of college rankings and university branding, they don’t scare off prospective students or alumni dollars,” Bolger said. “They treat survivors like liabilities to be managed, mitigated and swept aside.” Bolger, however, has refused to be “swept aside.” So has Susanna Vogel, 20, a college student at Davidson College in North Carolina, who wrote an article for Her Campus Davidson and is helping improve her school’s sexual assault misconduct policy after she was raped in her junior year.
Vogel’s assortment of extracurricular activities reads like that of someone who never sleeps: she’s the vice president of the Davidson Women’s Action Committee; former president of Changing Minds, a mental health awareness group; student solicitor for the Honor Council; member of Turner Eating House; and director of the 2013 Vagina Monologues and V-day efforts at Davidson. This is, of course, in addition to her studies as a psychology major. After talking with various administrative officials, Vogel chose to file a report through the Dean of Students office, which would then be heard by the Sexual Misconduct Board.
“I endured ninety days, a quarter of a year, of waiting and agonizing over what would happen,” she said. Eventually, after an emotionally taxing process, Vogel’s attacker was found responsible. The hearing then moved to the sentencing stage; he was mandated to spend twenty hours in counseling to discuss relationships and alcohol consumption and he could not go to a select few locations on campus, like her eating house (similar to a sorority) and dormitory. Vogel was, to say the least, disappointed by the outcome, which she described as a slap on the wrist. But she doesn’t like to dwell on the past and has instead focused her energy toward reforming the present sexual misconduct policy at Davidson.
“Being raped and going through the sexual misconduct process stripped me of my sense of agency. Working to help change the process means that even if the student who assaulted me is still on campus, other survivors will have a better shot at justice. It gives me my power back,” Vogel said. “Working to create change means that maybe all of my suffering wasn’t for nothing. This isn’t a very noble reason to get involved, but it’s an honest one.”
This spring, Vogel drafted a petition with two other students that included specific proposals to improve Davidson’s sexual misconduct policy. The suggestions were wide-ranging, from incorporating a minimum sentence of a one-semester suspension for any student found guilty of sexually assaulting or raping another student, to conducting a survey of the campus to get a better idea of what needs are and are not being met with regard to the school’s sexual assault policy.
Vogel and the other two creators of the petition had an initial goal of 500 signatures, or a quarter of the 2,000-member student body at Davidson. Within two days, they had 1,000 signatures. Now, with the help of the broader Davidson community, they’re at 3,000. They delivered the petition to the Dean of Students and to the college president. Soon after, the dean and the president sent an e-mail to the entire college announcing that Davidson will launch a task force in the fall to consider the reforms Vogel and others proposed in the petition.
As for the future, Vogel isn’t sure what’s next. Her career plans are still up in the air, but she does want to spend some time working with survivors of sexual violence. One thing is definite, though: she’s returning to Davidson this fall. “I’m coming back to Davidson,” Vogel said. “I refuse to let him take anything else from me. Davidson offers a great education and fantastic opportunities. I will see the accused student frequently. It will be hard. But my life has to go on and changing location will not fix the damage that has been done. I need to move forward not, run away.”