07/14/2017

Defending students from sexual assault

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AFT President Randi Weingarten joined protesters gathered outside the Department of Education on July 13 to insist that college students must be protected from sexual assault on campus, and to demand that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos retain the protective provisions adopted through Title IX.

Organized by Know Your IX, End Rape on Campus and other survivor advocates, rally participants listened intently as survivor stories were read aloud. Time after time, they recounted how sexual assault upends lives with depression and fear. Students stop eating, their grades fall and they wind up on academic probation; they lose their jobs, drop off of sports teams and become withdrawn. On top of suffering the assault itself, many are dismissed by law enforcement and college officials, blamed for the incidents in which they were victims and re-traumatized by the scrutiny and resistance of unsympathetic officials. But many were saved by Title IX, which includes provisions protecting them from having to see their perpetrators in class and ensuring they have the healthcare and counseling they need.

Weingarten at Title IX rally

Weingarten, who is a sexual assault survivor herself, read a story from a college student who clearly linked the trauma of sexual assault to a solution: "Rather than threatening the most vulnerable people, DeVos should do her job," she said, and uphold the strongest provisions of Title IX.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) also read. "The trauma of rape is real," read Gillibrand. "Please listen to survivors."

Inside, DeVos heard the same stories and met with sexual assault survivors, as well as people who say they have been falsely accused of sexual assault, advocates for both those groups and higher education officials. Survivor advocates are infuriated at the inclusion of some of the "men's rights" organizations, including the National Coalition for Men. The group focuses on the possibility of false accusations but is also is hostile to survivor rights groups, discredits feminism, and has a reputation for bullying victims by publishing their names and photos on social media.

With the department's stated intent to minimize regulation across the board, and with personnel who have clearly signaled their opposition to current protections, many survivor advocates fear DeVos will loosen the stringent measures put in place by the Obama administration to more firmly address sexual assault on campus.

Comments from Candice Jackson, the acting head of the department's Office for Civil Rights, have been particularly troubling. She told the New York Times that Title IX investigations have not been fairly balanced between survivors and accused, and that students accused of rape are too quickly demonized. "The accusations—90 percent of them—fall into the category of 'we were both drunk,' 'we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right,'" Jackson said.

To such complaints, protesters asked, "Who are you protecting?" Sympathy for the accused is widely seen as misplaced and a way to preserve rape culture—that tendency to explain away aggressive and violent behavior by normalizing it. Many sexual assaults go unreported because survivors are afraid no one will believe them and/or the crime will go unpunished; experience proves them right in many cases. People like Brock Turner illustrate the point: He was the Stanford student convicted of raping an intoxicated woman behind a dumpster, but he was sentenced to just six months in jail and three years probation. His father pled for leniency because the incident had "broken" and "shattered" his son, and the judge said harsher punishment would have a "severe impact" on the life of a perpetrator portrayed as a star athlete.

Title IX was passed in 1972—45 years ago on July 14—to prohibit discrimination against girls in public schools. It is often associated with equal funding and attention to girls' sports. In 2011, President Obama clarified its application to sexual assault as an impediment to education that robs victims of their equal opportunity to learn, unencumbered by fear for their physical and emotional safety. Since that time, students have held their colleges accountable for providing a safe learning environment, and programs to prevent sexual assault have grown. Advocacy groups focused not only on specific safety measures but seriously tackled rape culture, the cultural phenomenon that forgives the mistreatment of women (and some men) as normal.

To maintain those advances, the AFT is joining with other advocates to preserve Title IX—not only at the July 13 rally, but also in a letter to DeVos that breaks down the law and proves that Title IX provisions do not violate the rights of the accused. The letter is signed by representatives of 36 advocacy and education groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Women's Law Center.

"For months, DeVos' Education Department has sent a chilling message to students and survivors by openly questioning Obama-era rules to protect students," Weingarten said in a statement. "DeVos' meetings today with so-called men's rights groups, and other fringe groups that want to silence sexual assault survivors' voices, legitimatize those efforts. As a survivor of sexual violence, I will not sit back in silence while Betsy DeVos pretends that rape deniers have something useful to say about this topic."

[Virginia Myers]