“[Campus rape] 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 [the victim] just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.”
These are the words of Candice E. Jackson, an Education Department top official tasked with enforcing campus sexual assault laws, about campus rape (though she later walked back this statement). This is the kind of flippant, victim-blaming disregard I feared when I worried about what would happen if I came forward about my own assault more than a decade ago.
Her words may have a real devastating impact for survivors today: Jackson and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have suggested a rollback in Title IX protections for student survivors of sexual assault. They've threatened to stop publishing the list of schools under investigation and also suggested they might rescind critical federal guidance clarifying schools' responsibilities in addressing sexual violence.
Worse, DeVos is asking so-called “men’s rights” groups who harass victims to advise her on the law.
News like this makes it hard not to think about my own experience with campus violence. When I was 15 years old, I was raped by another student in high school. I felt scared and alone. That same year, I had overheard elders at my mosque share their experiences with racial profiling by law enforcement and their fear of an informant at our Friday prayers. I became terrified of the only institution I knew I could report my assault to — the police — and told no one at all.
Instead, I dropped out of high school and spent the next two years taking coursework online. At the time, I did not know that outside of a racist criminal system, Title IX provides survivors with the civil right to access the resources they need — free counseling services, extensions on papers, or getting moved out of a class shared with a rapist — to stay in school after an assault. A decade later, I now work with student survivors, who tell me every day why they too didn’t report to the police, and why Title IX — and all of its protections — have provided a desperately needed alternative to help them learn.
This is what Title IX is about: making sure the most vulnerable students are not harassed, assaulted, and pushed out of school. And as secretary of education, Betsy DeVos is tasked with upholding protections for these students. Rather than discuss campus rape with “men’s rights” groups, espouse rape myths in national publications, and threaten to roll back federal enforcement, the Department of Education needs to do its job. If DeVos actually listened to survivors, she might even learn a thing or two as to how.
Schools can and must respond to gender violence
Many people have asked me what role schools even have in addressing campus violence. Why not leave it up to the police?
Well, that’s against federal civil rights law. After my rape, I was terrified to show up at school. The idea of sitting down in the same classroom as my rapist was nauseating. I became anxious, fell behind in my studies, and dropped out.
Rape isn’t just a crime — it is a civil rights issue that affects the ability of young people to learn. Because gender-based harassment and violence creates such barriers, the government requires schools under Title IX to prevent and respond to violence so that all young people can learn. This isn’t a replacement for reporting to the police — I can choose to report to the police, schools, both, or neither — but rather a parallel option for survivors.
The more important question, though, is why should schools handle these cases? Why fight for the department to robustly enforce this law? For many young people, campus reporting is the only option.
Many survivors — especially those who are black, undocumented, queer, or Muslim like me — rightfully fear going to the police, where they may face additional skepticism, abuse, or even violence. Others may want to avoid a brutally long trial, that will likely end up without a conviction. For some of my friends, sending their abuser to prison where they in turn may be at risk of rape hardly feels like justice. Many others live in states that do not protect queer and male victims of violence.
Furthermore, schools are positioned to support student victims in ways the police simply cannot. When my friend was raped, she needed time to cope with what happened to her. It was her college — not the police — that helped her get an extension on her final due the week after her rape.
Schools, unlike criminal courts, are focused on survivors. Though many assume the only thing victims want is jail time for the perpetrator, many students’ most urgent needs are emergency health care, an academic accommodation or housing rearrangement, and mental health support. These are resources schools are able, and required, to provide.
Title IX doesn’t just protect victims — it protects all students
DeVos’s choice to meet with men’s rights groups reveals another flawed argument at the core of her attitude toward this issue — that protections for survivors come at the expense of accused students.
While these groups paint victims who come forward as hysterical lying feminists out to destroy the reputations of young men, this couldn't be further from the truth. As young people whose own educations have been compromised by gender violence, we take concerns around fair process very seriously. This is why we're demanding that the department enforce existing civil rights law.
Title IX doesn't trample over procedural protections for accused students — it strengthens them. Title IX requires schools to provide the same protections to both sides, such as equal opportunity to present witnesses and evidence. It guarantees much more robust protections to accused students than they would have otherwise — a student accused of sexual misconduct is afforded more protections than a student thrown out of school for plagiarism or physical violence.
This isn’t to say that schools follow the law to a T. As an advocate who has worked with countless survivors who were pushed out of school or told to “work at Starbucks” until their rapist graduated, I would know. The impact of an unfair campus proceeding can be devastating to a student’s education. But while DeVos draws attention to the trauma of institutional failure for the rare student wrongfully accused of rape, she ignores the much more common one in five young women and LGBTQ students assaulted during their time in school.
The solution, then, isn’t to roll back federal enforcement — it’s to ramp it up, and make sure that schools have fair, transparent, and responsive proceedings for all students.
But DeVos isn’t hearing this from the men’s groups she is meeting with. The National Coalition for Men and Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, groups that DeVos met with last Thursday, are part of a right-wing movement of men’s rights groups committed to tearing down protections for women like me. They oppose anti-rape laws, such as affirmative consent requirements, which they claim have “gone too far.” These are the men who claim “female initiation” is the “leading reason” of partner violence, and who dox survivors, implicitly directing their followers to harass victims online.
Given this and department officials’ outrageous and baseless endorsement of this rape myth, it is clear to me that the real motivation behind these rollbacks is not a concern for fair process, but rather age-old misogyny that argues women always lie. It’s a belief that’s been disproven many times.
While none of this surprising coming from an administration run by a man accused of being a serial perpetrator, it is nonetheless dangerous. Without a federal government that holds schools accountable, schools can get away with flouting the law and jeopardizing the education of all their students.
DeVos has the power to enforce Title IX protections and ensure that every student is able to attend school free from the violence that forced my peers and me to drop out.
It's up to us to make sure she does.
Mahroh Jahangiri is the project manager of Know Your IX, a project of Advocates for Youth, and an editor at Feministing.com. Know Your IX is a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering young people to end gender violence in their schools. She lives and organizes in Washington, DC. Find her on Twitter @mahrohj.