Hey Bernie: campus rape is a civil rights issue

Last night at Fusion’s Brown & Black Democratic Forum, Bernie Sanders spoke publicly about campus sexual assault publicly for the first time. Unfortunately, he fumbled. Here’s the comment, transcript courtesy Veronica Portillo Heap:

Rape and assault is rape and assault. Whether it takes place on campus or on a dark street. And if a student rapes a fellow student, that has got to be understood to be a very serious crime. It has got to get outside of the school and have a police investigation. And that has to take place. Too many schools are seeing this as well it’s a student issue, let’s deal with it. I disagree with that. It is a crime and it has to be treated as a serious crime. And you are seeing now the real horror of many women who have been assaulted or raped, sitting in a classroom alongside somebody who raped them. Rape is a very, very serious crime and it has to be prosecuted. It has to be dealt with.

Bernie seems like a cool dude, and I bet he thought this answer demonstrated his concern about campus rape. That’s a tactic many legislators have taken, as though criminal law is the only response “serious” enough for such a terrible harm.

But as we’ve written again and again and again, school responses to gender violence are necessary to protect students’ right to an education regardless of gender. Absolutely, it’s essential that students who feel like reporting to the police is best for them be able to do so. At the same time, school remedies, like dorm changes and tutoring, are crucially important for a survivor’s ability to learn. That’s why the anti-discrimination law Title IX requires schools to prevent and respond to sexual assault in addition to, not in place of, criminal law enforcement.

Without key interventions by their schools, many survivors won’t be able to continue their educations. An extension on a paper due the week after an assault might make the difference between a victim staying in school and dropping out. No police force can provide that kind of accommodation. Don’t want victims “sitting in a classroom alongside somebody who raped them”? A school can often make that happen more quickly than a student can get a restraining order, particularly if he or she has trouble accessing a court.

(One thing to add after seeing misinformation on Twitter: only about one in ten rapes reported to the police are referred for prosecution, but schools must support all victims. That means reporting to the police will be a dead end for most survivors, leaving them in particularly desperate need of alternatives. I don’t measure success through prosecution rates, but even if you do you can’t pretend a criminal response is an option for most, let alone all, victims.)

Understood in the context of survivors’ real experiences, it’s clear school responses to gender violence don’t trivialize the harm. Rather, they recognize just how complex and diverse its effects are. To treat gender violence as only a crime is to give up on the project of campus sex equality.

Plus, if you want to hold perpetrators accountable, you should make it as easy as possible for survivors to report–and survivors overwhelming confirm that, if their schools were to forward their reports to the police, they simply wouldn’t report to anyone at all. Sanders has worked hard to develop a criminal justice reform agenda. Well-deserved distrust of law enforcement, particularly by survivors of color and undocumented survivors, shouldn’t be a surprise.

Nor should institutional responsibilities to address violence be an unfamiliar idea to a workers’ rights advocate like Sanders: Title VII charges employers with analogous responsibilities. Nor, frankly, can Sanders afford to be uninformed. He is, after all, a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, which is currently considering a campus sexual assault bill.

I don’t think this is the side of history on which Sanders wants to stand. In calling for schools to abdicate their Title IX responsibilities, he finds himself with strange bedfellows: conservative legislators trying to strip anti-discrimination law of its power. With that stance, he opposes the student victims I genuinely believe he wants to support. While Sanders seems to think schools are eager to hoard reports, they’re only acting now in response to sustained demands by students.

I mean this genuinely: Bernie, if you want to talk about campus rape, if you want to take it seriously, talk with some survivors. Meet with student activists. This is an invitation, not an attack. Other Democrats have had the same first instinct but, with time and research, have come around to stand with students. I believe you will, too. You just have a lot to learn.


Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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