White House Action on Campus Sexual Violence: For Me, It's Personal

Aimee Lang

At an April 2013 anti-rape protest, the author tells her story of surviving sexual assault at Tufts University.

One of the biggest contributors to the perpetuation of sexual violence is silence. Time and time again, survivors have found themselves dealing with administrators who repeatedly opt to protect a school’s reputation rather than protect the students they are supposed to protect and serve. Universities have long been taking advantage of the silence of survivors to cover up the gross injustices they have been committing.

Last week was pivotal moment in the movement to address the alarmingly high rates of campus sexual violence. On May 1, the Department of Education found Tufts University out of compliance with Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. This is the first time in the history of the 40-year-old law that a school has been found out of compliance by the federal government in regard to the way it addresses sexual violence on campus. Concurrently, the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault released its first report on the prevention of and response to sexual violence on college campuses.

Then in another enlightened move by the Obama administration, the department released a list of 55 colleges currently under investigation for Title IX sexual violence violations. These are all unprecedented steps toward better protecting students during their academic careers in higher education.

When the Education Department announced that Tufts University was out of compliance with Title IX, I was unsurprised. Six years ago, I filed a report with the university after I was abused and assaulted by another student. Administrators initially expressed their support as I prepared to initiate the school adjudication process. However, when I finally did file my complaint the school decided not to take any action. The administration chose to literally break its own rules when university officials chose not hold one its own students accountable for the violence he had committed.

The decision left me confused and devastated. At first I thought that it was my own fault that the school did not care enough to do anything; I wondered whether if I was a perfect enough victim to warrant any concern. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that this was not the case. Ever since my first failed attempt at justice on campus, I have heard from numerous survivors who were failed by the Tufts administration in the aftermath of assault.

I filed a Title IX complaint against the university in 2009, but I found the experience with the Department of Education to be long, frustrating, and utterly confusing. It took four years for the department to finish its investigation. (After initially opting for a voluntary resolution agreement, department officials decided that there was not enough evidence to show there was a violation had taken place.) During this time, the same administrators that mishandled my case continued to retraumatize other survivors with their lack of concern for the safety of its other students.

Despite calls from multiple generations of students for an improved sexual assault policy year after year, the school continued its detrimental practices. Tufts’ recent decision to breach a voluntary resolution agreement it had signed with the Education Department exposes the hubris of a school that has gotten away with mistreating survivors for so long. The university had become so emboldened that its administrators had the gall to say that the federal government is wrong to say in its assessment that the university violated the law. It is past due time to hold schools like Tufts accountable.

This is why I became an organizer with Know Your IXs ED ACT NOW campaign. Last July, we rallied outside the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., where we delivered a petition with more than 175,000 signatures in support of our call for improved enforcement of Title IX. There has been an unprecedented number of students realizing their rights in regards to sexual violence under Title IX, which has led to a boost in complaints filed against their schools. However, having more students assert their rights under Title IX will mean little if the department doesn’t improve enforcement of the law. Fortunately the White House agrees.

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

President Barack Obama signs the Campus Sexual Assault Presidential Memorandum during a White House Council on Women and Girls meeting in the East Room of the White House, Jan. 22, 2014.

Organizers at Know Your IX were pleased to see that one of our original asksincreased transparencywas picked up as one of the major components of the White House Task Force’s report. Increased transparency around the Title IX’s enforcement by the department is an invaluable resource for students and their families. While last week’s release of the list of schools currently being investigated is a great start in the pursuit of better transparency, it is important to remember that this is just a one-time act. What about schools that will be under investigation in the future? Both prospective and current students alike should be able to know how many times (if any) a school has been investigated in the past and when these investigations happened. Up until now, the department has made this information available only by request, an unnecessary hurdle to accessing data on a university’s track record in handling sexual violence that must be eliminated.

The effect of publicly shaming educational institutions that are under investigation is a powerful incentive for persuading them to address the sexual violence that is all too common among their ranks. Sweeping the dirt under the rug has suddenly become a less attractive option. Until now, schools could make the relatively-safe decision to err on the side of letting down the survivor. Now they will have to answer to the Department of Educationand the general publicif they fail to do their job.

I continue to speak up about the injustice that I endured at Tufts because I know the cost of institutional apathy and neglect. Survivors often can’t simply pick themselves up and go back to class the day after an assaultor in the weeks or months or years afterward. Beyond the trauma of the assault and its long-lasting effects, sexual assault survivors can find themselves losing tuition and graduating late. And there’s no price that can be put on the psychological damage wreaked by justice denied.

 

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