On January 29th, 2019, Melissa Foree, Campus Advocate, submitted the following letter to the Department of Education as part of the public notice and comment period for the proposed regulations on Title IX. On behalf of The Care Center, this letter details the importance of the rights afforded to all students under Title IX. No matter what, The Care Center will always believe and support victims and survivors of sexual violence.
Dear Department of Education,
My name is Melissa Foree, and I am the Campus Advocate for victims and survivors of sexual violence in Douglas, Franklin, and Jefferson counties in Kansas. I work for a local non-profit agency, The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center, and our organization works with all kinds of people who are affected by sexual violence in our community. At The Care Center, we provide free education, advocacy, and therapy services. While we serve victims and survivors of all ages, we know campus sexual violence is an important enough issue to have a specific staff person dedicated to providing advocacy and response for students. Our advocates are trained on Title IX and we are invested in making sure Title IX continues to support as many survivors as possible.
Effects of Sexual Violence on Victim-Survivors
Every day, people come talk to us about how hard it is to keep going to school after an assault. What they share with us illustrates how overwhelming and terrifying life can become after sexual violence and harassment. Traumatic experiences interrupt peoples’ lives and can make it anywhere from difficult to impossible to keep going to school “like nothing happened.” That’s why so many survivors are forced to leave school. (One study says 34.1% of survivors end up leaving college.) It’s normal for people to need schedule changes, extensions on assignments, flexible attendance policies, and understanding professors. It’s understandable for people to want their perpetrator to be held accountable and to avoid seeing them in classes, activities, or student groups. Title IX’s development over the years has been central in letting students know that they have the right to have an education free from violence and to seek help if violence has occurred.
Effects of the Proposed Regulations
The Department of Education’s current proposed regulations would dramatically shift schools’ responsibility to have robust and effective Title IX services. We would see decades of expanded protections rescinded to an era in which not all student-survivors were deemed worthy of support – to a time in which schools did nothing or gave minimal effort in caring for traumatized students. We feel that these areas of the proposed Title IX regulations need attention:
Standard of Evidence
Allowing schools to increase the standard of evidence used to hold perpetrators accountable will dissuade survivors from reporting. This is especially alarming as few students currently report to their schools. It’s common for victim-survivors to think that they don’t have “enough evidence” after an assault or to feel that they won’t be believed. In civil court processes (such as with the protection order process), the “preponderance of evidence” standard works because it allows victims to petition for their safety without a criminal investigation process. If schools enact the “clear and convincing” standard, they are sending the message that survivors can only be believed if there are certain amounts and types of evidence – ones that are not common in sexual violence cases. We know that sexual violence generally occurs in private and students may not have access to, may not want to, or may not be able to gather any physical evidence of an assault. Since schools are not responsible for pressing criminal charges or punishing perpetrators, they don’t need a higher standard of evidence than a preponderance to enact educational sanctions against a violent person. Holding someone accountable at one institution does not mean that they will not be able to get an education somewhere else, it simply means that they lost the ability to be a part of one particular campus community because of their actions.
Location of the violence
Allowing schools to do nothing if the violence occurred off-campus or outside of a school sponsored activity is a serious step backwards. Most sexual violence occurs in private housing or out in the community, and there can be serious and lasting effects on campus if harassment or assault occur off-campus. Retaliation and bullying from perpetrators and their friends is common in private settings, on campus property, and in digital spaces. Victim-survivors often report that campus was no longer a safe space after an assault no matter where the violence occurred. If new Title IX regulations make it harder or more time-consuming for schools to move perpetrators to different housing or classes, campuses (especially smaller ones) can quickly become hostile environments for survivors who could already be struggling after an assault.
Definitions of sexual harassment
Requiring schools to use a specific, narrow definition of sexual harassment will make it more difficult for many students to ask for and receive help. It opens the door for abuse and harassment to escalate and to repeat, making it harder for victims to continue their education by putting them in increased physical and emotional danger. While it’s important to carefully discuss and define what is deemed unacceptable in one’s community, overly restrictive and legalistic definitions are often out-of-touch with what people actually experience. These proposed definitions also have the potential to invalidate the traumatic experiences of some survivors, especially if they are told what they went through “isn’t bad enough” to necessitate action. Schools should have flexibility to define what constitutes sexual harassment more broadly with the input of their students, who are most affected by these definitions.
Protections for diverse groups of students
The Dear Colleague Letter (2010) and other Title IX guidance released during the Obama administration made it a point to discuss the rights of historically and currently disenfranchised groups. We know that certain groups of people experience sexual violence and other forms of violence at much higher rates than many belonging to privileged groups. Transgender and non-binary students, people with diverse sexual orientations, disabled people, and students of color are at an increased risk of sexual violence. It’s important for schools to reach out to those groups in ways that make them feel heard and supported, and provide resources that respond to their needs. By rescinding the 2010 DCL and other guidance, this administration has removed the explicit, meaningful promise to protect vulnerable members of communities, and to respond to the perpetrators who target them. Schools must be held accountable by the federal government to respond to all victim-survivors’ needs – not just the people that administrators at colleges are most comfortable with or can relate to the most. In addition, permitting religious exemptions to Title IX could let schools systemize discrimination against various groups. This is not the direction we want our communities to head.
Time and process of school response
Letting schools delay the student conduct process if a criminal investigation is occurring leads to an increase in emotional and psychological distress for survivors. Often, those students truly need timely responses after they report to their schools to feel supported and well enough to continue school. It makes it harder for someone to heal or cope if all the systems they are working with take a long time. The more responsive and action-orientated a school is, the more supported a survivor could feel during a traumatic period of their life. Criminal investigations can take months, if not years. Delaying student conduct processes would allow perpetrators to evade responsibility – they could perpetrate again. Additionally, allowing schools the option to use mediation in lieu of proper conduct hearings sends the message that sexual violence and harassment “aren’t that bad.” This is an unacceptable position in a world in which we know how painful experiences of sexual harassment and violence are.
Every day, we see why Title IX is important. Title IX creates options for survivors and helps them continue their education. Title IX ensures that schools have policies and procedures in place to hold perpetrators accountable and provides safer learning communities. With a broad and inclusive interpretation of Title IX, we are telling all victims that we believe them, that their responses are valid, and that it’s okay to need time and support after experiencing trauma. If we cut back on Title IX and give schools the ability to discriminate through weakened protections, we are telling survivors that they alone have to suffer the consequences of someone’s harmful actions and that their education is unimportant. We let perpetrators continue to harm others in our communities and target people who are vulnerable and the least protected by systems.
In honor of all the survivors we are privileged to work with, we ask that you do not make Title IX systems more difficult to navigate and more unresponsive to survivors’ rights and needs. Please consider the ways in which the proposed regulations would take us in the wrong direction as a society. Everyone should be invested in safer and more caring campus communities.
Melissa Foree, LMSW
The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center