Department of Education: Hold colleges accountable that break the law by refusing to protect students from sexual assault
Trigger warning: this petition contains information about sexual assault that may be upsetting to survivors.
We are members of a group of hundreds of students and recent graduates fighting sexual violence at colleges and universities, driven by our own experiences of assault, harassment, and abuse on campus. Many of us filed complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil rights because we feel our schools broke federal law by refusing to protect us either before or after we were assaulted. In fact, the Department of Education has only ever publicly found one school to be in noncompliance with the law, even though a recent study suggests nearly two thirds of colleges in America don’t comply.
We started this petition to demand that the Department of Education step up to hold colleges and universities publicly accountable for complying with federal law about protecting survivors of sexual assault like us.
Indeed, one in four women will be raped by the time she graduates college. And, often, survivors are betrayed by the school administrations they turn to after their assault. In this past year alone, hundreds of survivors from dozens of schools have bravely shared their experiences. Almost all have been silenced or ignored by their campus administrations, and most have been forced to drop classes, clubs, sports teams, jobs – or abandon their educations entirely – in order to ensure their basic safety.
These practices aren’t only unethical; they’re illegal. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments – the landmark civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and guarantees students the fundamental right to education free from sexual violence and harassment. Yet, over 40 years later, little has changed: according to the National Institute of Justice, nearly two in three schools don’t follow anti-violence law.
Some of these schools have been investigated by the Department of Education (ED), the body charged with enforcing Title IX. But ED’s willingness to accept colleges’ promises to change their ways — rather than levy sanctions and publicly declare offending schools as “noncompliant” — isn’t working. In the face of ED’s leniency, schools aren’t changing their ways, and students continue to suffer sexual violence and institutional abuse.
The Department released a remarkable set of guidelines in the 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter,” and this year it has the opportunity to show its commitment to students by following up this strong language with effective action. In the past twelve months, an unprecedented number of survivors have filed Title IX complaints with ED against colleges and universities across the United States, including the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, Occidental College, the University of California – Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. More complaints are expected in the upcoming months.
To create safe, fair campuses across the country, we call on ED to join us in the fight against campus sexual violence by enforcing Title IX law.After we collect signatures, we will deliver this petition during a demonstrationat 11am on July 15th in front of the Department (400 Maryland SW, DC) and would love for you to join us and show how many people care about this national problem.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. More than four decades after Title IX, it is long past time we be able to enjoy our right to safe education.
Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of EducationFor far too long, we have been unsafe on our college campuses.We have endured rape, stalking, abuse, and harassment by classmates and professors. When we have reported violence to campus officials, we have been shamed, silenced, and ignored. We have been forced to drop out of classes, clubs, sports teams, and campus jobs. We have hidden inside our dormitories out of fear.We have been told to take time off from our educations until our assailants graduate. Some of us have been forced to abandon our educations entirely. Our rapists have graduated while we – and their other victims – have not.
And we have hurt and grieved as our friends and classmates, betrayed by the institutions that should have protected them, have been driven to take their own lives.
Survivors and allies have learned that our experiences of institutional neglect, betrayal, and abuse are not unique. One in four women will be raped during her time in college, female college students are four times more likely to be assaulted than their peers who do not pursue higher education, and the National Institute of Justice estimates that nearly two-thirds of colleges and universities fail to comply with federal anti-violence requirements. In this past year alone, hundreds of survivors from dozens of schools have bravely shared their stories of abuse and neglect at the hands of college administrators.
This should not be the case. In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments, the landmark civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and guarantees students the fundamental right to education free from sexual violence and harassment. Among other responsibilities, schools must combat abuse, provide fair grievance procedures, and accommodate survivors’ needs.Yet over 40 years later, little has changed and the violence continues.
The Department of Education’s (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is tasked with enforcing Title IX and has the power to levy a range of sanctions against colleges violating students’ civil rights. Yet instead of employing these tools, the OCR concludes investigations of offending universities with “voluntary resolution agreements” — signed promises that the college will do better in the future — and refuses to issue findings of noncompliance — the administrative equivalent of a guilty verdict. This strategy of all carrot and no stick may be well-meaning, but it is ineffective, allowing universities to avoid their legal responsibilities at the cost of student safety and academic opportunity.
In the last few years, the OCR has investigated formal student complaints and identified flagrant Title IX violations at Tufts, the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, Georgetown, and many other colleges — but none of these schools have faced a noncompliance finding, let alone substantive sanctions. In 2012, the OCR completed an investigation of Yale College, noting various abuses, including a grievance procedure “very unfriendly to victims of sexual misconduct,” resulting in “tragic, tragic stories.” Nonetheless, in the face of such damning evidence, the OCR concluded its investigation with another voluntary resolution agreement. It is no wonder that survivors from these and dozens of other schools continue to face the same abuses as occurred before the OCR came to their campuses.
The Department released a remarkable set of guidelines in the 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter,” and this year it has the opportunity to show its commitment to students by following up this strong language with effective action. In the past twelve months, an unprecedented number of survivors have filed Title IX complaints with the OCR against colleges and universities across the United States, including the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, Occidental College, the University of California – Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. More complaints are expected in the upcoming months.
The stakes could not be higher: students are looking to the Department to protect their rights, but without governmental support they will continue to suffer violence and universities will continue to deny them justice. Now is the time for the Department to place the safety of survivors before the reputations of universities so we can experience real change in our daily lives on campus. We will finally be able to enjoy our right to safe education.
We call on the Department of Education to join us in this fight against campus violence by enforcing federal requirements regarding gender-based violence on campus. Specifically, we demand:
(1) The Department of Education must levy sanctions against colleges and universities that fail in their legal responsibilities under Title IX, the Clery Act, and other relevant law. The Department must provide incentives for colleges and universities to comply with federal law by publicly identifying institutions that do not adhere to federal law as non-compliant, imposing fines when appropriate, and referring cases to the Department of Justice. In its investigations, the OCR must recognize that schools’ inadequate responses to violence, in addition to violence itself, negatively impact students’ academic experiences and performance. The OCR must also investigate not only policy but practice, since administrators often do not implement their own regulations. If the Department feels the current structure of the OCR is not suitable for providing sanctions, the structure must change.
(2) The Department of Education must proactively initiate investigations of colleges rather than relying on official student complaints. For many student survivors the OCR complaint process is exhausting, confusing, time-consuming, and triggering; it makes obtaining an education even more difficult for survivors already struggling to stay in school. Moreover, survivors from historically marginalized groups, including queer survivors, survivors of color, disabled survivors, trans survivors, male survivors, and undocumented survivors, are particularly unlikely to come forward with their stories. Therefore, the Department must proactively investigate institutional abuses reported through news outlets or informally through private channels.
(3) The Department of Education must complete investigations in a concretely delineated and timely manner. Current standards under Title IX require schools to process reports of violence on a “reasonably prompt” time frame because of the urgency of survivors’ needs. However, ED doesn’t hold itself to this same standard, often taking years to investigate colleges and universities. This is egregious, leaving many survivors to suffer on their campuses without relief. Many times these investigations conclude after the complaining students have graduated or transferred, thereby rendering ED’s efforts meaningless in regard to survivors’ immediate need for justice.
(4) Survivor-complainants must be at the negotiating table with ED and the offending university when deciding voluntary resolution agreements. Such agreements must not be determined without the input of the complainants who initiated the investigations in the first place.
Survivors and allies at our nation’s higher education institutions are reaching out to you. It is time for ED to demonstrate its commitment to equal access to education for all students.
Schools, like campus rapists, have revealed themselves to be repeat offenders; those with the power to stop their cruelty who choose not to are complicit in their abuses.
Originally published in July 2013 by EDActNow | Change.org