Stopping campus sexual violence starts with Title IX enforcement

Commentary: Lax enforcement of Title IX means schools are not held accountable enough for mishandling sexual assaults

Students at Occidental College at a sexual assault awareness night. A group of Occidental students filed a Title IX complaint in April, saying the school does not meet federal standards for responding to sexual assaults on campus.
Patrick Fallon / Bloomberg / Getty Images

To talk about campus sexual violence is to talk about betrayal. Every survivor tells a different story, but almost every narrative includes the initial betrayal of the assault — by a classmate, professor, boyfriend, girlfriend, neighbor — and the institutional betrayal that followed. Schools are required to provide support for sexual-assault survivors and establish procedures for reporting incidents under Title IX, which prohibits gender-based discrimination at federally funded schools. Instead, students across the country have turned to their colleges for assistance, only to be silenced, shamed, forced off campus and even forcibly institutionalized.

These two forms of campus betrayal — the personal and the administrative — are enabled by a third: the federal government’s. The Department of Education (DOE) has a powerful anti-violence tool in Title IX, but its refusal to use it amounts to passive tolerance for violence.

Universities are not holding rapists accountable because the DOE does not hold schools accountable. The department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is charged with enforcing Title IX, and in recent years more and more students have asked the OCR to investigate violations on their campuses. In response to undeniable evidence that schools are not living up to their legal responsibilities, the DOE has clarified — through a rightfully lauded 2011 guidance letter — students’ civil rights under the law. Yet when students file complaints asking that the government enforce this law, the OCR refuses to levy sanctions on offending schools. A landmark law is thereby reduced to a toothless reminder of good intentions.

At Yale, where I helped filed a Title IX complaint as an undergraduate and now attend law school, the OCR uncovered violation after violation. In private conversations, federal investigators admitted to survivors that the school regularly violated the law. Few students knew how to turn to the school for help, and those who did were discouraged from pursuing disciplinary proceedings. Yet the DOE refused to confirm this finding publicly, opting instead for the standard conclusion to these investigations, a voluntary resolution agreement — basically, a school’s promise to do better in the future.

To be fair, Yale's official anti-violence programs and policies are better than they were before the complaint. But when it comes to actual day-to-day oversight, much still remains the same.

In 2009, Wagatwe Wanjuki, an online strategist and former Tufts student, filed a Title IX complaint against her school for mishandling her report of relationship abuse. The OCR declined to hold the school accountable on a technicality. (The DOE said Wanjuki had filed her complaint too late because the “flesh” of her abuse had occurred the year before, though it had continued well after; the DOE then took four years to investigate.) This summer we met a junior at Tufts. After his rape, he was denied assistance by the same dean, still employed by the university, who had ignored Wanjuki’s requests for help years before.

Similar stories are repeated again and again, at schools such as the University of Wisconsin, Haverford, Duke and Harvard. The federal government arrives on campus and finds serious Title IX violations — and the university gets off by simply promising to do better, with little motivation to change its ways.

The Department of Education’s tolerance of sexual violence on U.S. campuses constitutes complicity in continued abuse.

Students know this cycle of abuse can be stopped and — in protests, petitions and meetings with the DOE — are demanding long-overdue enforcement of their rights. While I would never want the OCR to risk financial aid and educational opportunities by applying its most extreme punishment, a denial of all federal funds to a school, the office has other options. For instance, officials can refer a complaint to the Department of Justice or to the DOE’s Federal Student Aid office, which can levy legal or financial sanctions.

There is also the power of bad press. Little motivates a school quite like some good old-fashioned shaming. Some colleges under federal investigation feel pressure to live up to their legal responsibilities because a new generation of student organizers has recognized that media coverage of Title IX spurs universities to invest in safety, if only for their public image. The meaningful changes born from this embarrassment are among the main reasons I continue to encourage students to consider filing complaints. But when an investigation concludes with a voluntary resolution agreement like Yale’s, the school can claim a victory in the press and abandon its reform effort; the media coverage casts the university in a flattering light and then fades, so sexual violence returns to its old low-priority status for campus administrations. Imagine if instead, the DOE publicly announced which schools were out of compliance. The public pressure would force offending universities to change for good.

Rather than publicize schools’ violations, though, the OCR goes out of its way to keep them hidden. The office will not disclose the full list of colleges under investigation for Title IX violations and almost never makes an official public finding of compliance or noncompliance. Although OCR has begun to release some new resolution agreements — a promising sign of responsiveness to student demands — few of the settlements from previous complaints are available. When fellow activists and I met with DOE officials this summer, we demanded transparency and asked why the results of investigations were not available online. We were told scanning the documents would take too long.

The DOE’s opacity not only protects schools from potentially change-inducing public pressure but also keeps students and parents in the dark about conditions on campus. Without a public listing of which schools have been investigated and whether they are compliant with Title IX, applicants cannot make informed decisions about where to enroll. A friend of mine was raped at the University of Virginia a few years ago. It was only after she filed a Title IX complaint that she learned the school was already under investigation for violating the same law. Years later, she still does not know the status of either complaint.

The DOE’s tolerance of sexual violence on U.S. campuses constitutes complicity in continued abuse. American colleges and universities have learned they can rely on the OCR’s lax enforcement, confident that the worst to come from a Title IX investigation is a slap on the wrist behind closed doors.

Now is the time for the Department of Education to prove critics wrong by referring offending administrations for sanctions and providing the public with essential information about which campuses are safe and which are not. Because of student organizers’ efforts, we know an unprecedented number of Title IX complaints are arriving at the OCR’s doorstep from students at colleges such as the University of North Carolina, Swarthmore, Emerson, Occidental, the University of Connecticut and the University of Southern California. With other schools across the country watching the OCR’s responses, the office has the opportunity — and obligation — to protect not only those who have reported abuse but the national student body as a whole.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Al Jazeera America.

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