Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Dana Bolger and John Kelly. Dana is a student at Amherst College and founder of Know Your IX. John is a student at Tufts University. They are both organizers of ED ACT NOW. (And an editor’s disclaimer: I’m a member of ED ACT NOW.)
Last July, dozens of survivors, activists, and allies descended upon the Department of Education (ED) in Washington, D.C. to demand that the federal government take seriously the violence that has been perpetrated against college students and better enforce Title IX compliance on our campuses. (Title IX is the landmark federal legislation that protects victims of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and violence at school.) In hand, members of our ED ACT NOW coalition carried a petition calling for speedier federal investigations, stricter Title IX enforcement, greater transparency, and justice for survivors in marginalized communities. Over 174,000 supporters have signed our letter.
Today marks the four-month anniversary of the ED ACT NOW rally. In the last few months, we’ve taken our fight from ED to the Department of Justice to the White House, and have seen some important initial victories. In July, after powerful student protests on campus and our insistence that the Department not wait for official legal complaints to investigate unsafe colleges, ED opened a proactive compliance review at Dartmouth. The next month, the national office instructed regional investigators to speed up their work so survivors don’t have to wait years for justice. And just last week, ED officials promised us that they would post the findings of future investigations online, refer schools under Title IX investigations for Clery Act review (and so possible fines), and institute a policy to limit the amount of time schools can delay negotiations.
But these are only small, early steps, and students deserve much more. As our campaign moves into its next phase, we’re focusing on students’ essential need for Department of Education transparency and guidance to schools on same-sex violence.
ED’s failure to publish a list of schools currently under investigation, the status of such investigations, and the results of past investigations has meant that survivors today have no idea that there are open complaints at their institutions. As a result, it’s difficult — if not impossible — for current students to determine consistent patterns of administrative negligence and incompetence, thereby diminishing their ability to point out systemic institutional failure. And it’s isolating, leaving victims feeling “crazy” and alone, unaware that others have suffered the same institutional mistreatment, often at the hands of the very same administrators.
Further, ED’s refusal to grant the public access to this important information poses a direct threat to consumer safety: after all, how many of us would think twice about attending a college we knew had been investigated by the federal government multiple times for tolerating sexual violence? And how many of us would be willing to risk substantial student debt in order to attend a college that fails to protect its own students? ED’s reluctance to provide basic transparency has left prospective students and their families completely in the dark, with no way to know where schools stand on sexual violence. (On top of that: since we know that prospective student dollars, not to mention alumni dollars, are what really get universities’ attention, ED’s failure to publish a list of institutions that have been under investigation means that we’re missing out on a powerful tool for change.)
In many ways, ED’s lack of immediate action mimics administrations’ misuse of the ever rotating student body at college campuses. Both the government and schools hope that if they draw out their efforts long enough, and keep all the action shielded from the public eye, they can outlast exhausted student activists.
Guidance on Same-Sex Violence
Talking to campus administrators, you’d think all rapists are men and all victims are women. ED has remained silent on this issue. Universities lack important guidance on how to handle such cases, and the result has been tragic. Survivors of same-sex violence and male victims of female assailants are left out in the cold, with judicial processes that should be helping students, instead causing trauma. Schools’ heteronormative definitions of assault, focused on penetration, exclude many forms of violence, particularly those in queer communities. Male victims, particularly queer men, are dismissed as hypersexual and “unrapeable,” while women offenders receive lighter punishments than their male classmates because of outdated notions of feminine passivity and what constitutes an assault. The result is a lack of justice for many students.
ED has an incredible opportunity to protect survivors of same-sex violence. In 2011, the Department published a Title IX guidance for schools, known as the Dear Colleague Letter, that pushed colleges across the country to begin reforming their anti-violence policies. Last year, it released another, similar guidance focused on administrative retaliation against survivors and activists. In the face of administrative ignorance and abuse regarding the many forms violence takes, ED needs to issue another guidance clarifying schools’ responsibilities to men, queer students, and victims of same-sex abuse.
We’re excited to continue our campaign to push the Education Department to better enforce the law. To learn more about how you can help as ED ACT NOW moves forward, you can sign up for action alerts. In solidarity, connecting across campus and state lines, let’s build safer, more just campuses.