Title IX Requires Schools to Handle All Sexual Assault Allegations Promptly and Equitably

Janine Jackson: Claiming the current system had “failed too many students,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently announced a change in sexual assault provisions for college campuses. Guidance issued by the Obama administration had underscored that “sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by” federal rights law Title IX. But DeVos says, “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”

Media are covering it as sort of an Obama/Trump “culture war” thing, but what’s a better way to talk about what seems to be going on here? Alyssa Peterson is state organizer with Know Your IX, a survivor and youth-led project that aims to empower students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools. She joins us now by phone from Connecticut. Welcome to CounterSpin, Alyssa Peterson.

Alyssa Peterson: Thank you so much for having me.

First, could you explain about this 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, and the follow-up guidance, that Betsy DeVos is talking about rescinding? She and her supporters call it “overreach.” What is their argument, and what did that letter actually say?

Betsy DeVos has absolutely misrepresented the contents of the Dear Colleague letter, which helped survivors like me access education after we were sexually assaulted on our campuses. The Dear Colleague letter, as you stated, clarified that Title IX applies to instances of sexual violence, and for people like me, it was the first time that I had heard anything more than Title IX covers women’s sports. For a lot of us, it provided us with hope after we were assaulted. It helped us access the resources that we needed, because the Dear Colleague letter told us that our school was required to provide us with counseling, with housing accommodations, with extensions on term papers, that really helped many of us stay in school after we were assaulted.

So as for her rationale, Betsy DeVos has said that the guidance has failed both sides, which really has misrepresented the survivor position, because for many of us, six or seven years ago, our schools were not addressing this issue. The Dear Colleague letter signaled that the federal government took this issue seriously, which really helped us take that letter into meetings with our school administrators to change school policies, and we knew that the federal government had our back.

And the other major point that DeVos has made is that the campus process is fundamentally unfair to accused students. But every single example that she’s used for that proposition, such as students not receiving notice of their hearing, or survivors not being given accommodations, is in fact a violation of the guidance and of Title IX, and if she was acting in good faith, she would enforce the law, just as the Obama administration did when schools were violating the rights of accused students and survivors alike.

That’s what’s so confusing. Certainly what you hear is that the problem that supposedly this action is going to solve is a lack of due process for people who are accused of rape. But if that’s in the guidance itself, it seems like the solution would be to enforce that guidance, rather than remove it.

Exactly. And Title IX actually requires schools to handle all allegations promptly and equitably. That provides the Department with a lot of latitude to make sure that both survivors and accused students are being provided with process. What DeVos and her proponents want is a criminal process, which stacks the deck in the favor of accused students, rather than the civil rights law that Title XI actually is.

That seems to be a point that it turns on. And it’s when you start talking about moving it to a criminal justice position or, you know, why don’t we just call the police? — then this other thing comes in. I’ve seen this subtext of coverage that suggests that somehow concern for survivors of sexual assault is racist. What is that theme? What is going on there?

Yeah. No, that’s a really important issue. I think first off, I want to provide listeners with background about why Know Your IX and other survivors use Title IX, and it’s in part because Title IX affords victims rights, and sometimes those rights — well, for someone to stay in school, they need their rapist removed from their campus, because they can’t function while he or she is there. So for that reason, Title IX does have this disciplinary component where someone can be removed from campus.

The reason that Know Your IX opts for a campus system instead of a prison system is because we believe that the prison system is fundamentally violent and racist, so we don’t want to double down on that system, and we see Title IX as creating an alternative to incarceration. So then if you turn to the individuals who are alleging that the campus system is racist towards accused students, they are the same individuals who want to dismantle the campus system entirely.

So I think the lead critic of this is Emily Yoffe, who wrote a series of very searing Atlantic articles. But when you dig into them, you realize that the data that she’s relying on are a series of Google alerts that she’s set, which for me should not be relied upon in policy-making; we need more data than that. And Emily Yoffe has also suggested previously that survivors should be accountable for drinking when they’re sexually assaulted. So she’s consistently opposed the idea that schools should handle these issues at all.

The other groups that have also levied this charge, as you said, support the idea that a survivor should be pushed into the criminal justice system, and that schools should have no role. But I can think of nothing more racist and harmful than requiring survivors, particularly survivors of color, to go into a criminal justice system that is completely biased against them, and is also biased against people who are accused of sexual assault.

We are concerned that there is bias in the campus system, but we’re concerned that there’s bias for both survivors and accused students. And just as they handle other civil rights issues, we need schools to have data, which Know Your IX has called for schools to release aggregate data for two years now, talking about racial impacts and discipline. And if there is a disparity, the Department of Education needs to enforce that, just like they need to end the school-to-prison pipeline in K–12 schools, just like they need to stop a pushout of LGBT students. This should be considered a civil rights issue, but one that maintains the campus system, and should be enforced.

Let me just ask you about media. The media are covering it as almost like an identity politics or like a culture war debate. But I find it interesting that, meanwhile, many colleges seem to be saying, we’re going to carry on with the guidance that we have, which suggests that outside the sort of talking heads arena, they find this Obama era guidance useful and workable.

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. It’s in part because the changes that Betsy DeVos has been pushing are very radical, that seem to presuppose that schools should not have a role in this system, are imposing a criminal-like process on universities, which they don’t feel comfortable executing, whereas a civil rights role, they are feeling more comfortable in that role.

And I think the second point is, schools have really invested a lot of resources into their policy. They’ve talked to members of their community, they’ve worked with survivors to refine the policy. They don’t want to throw all that progress and work in the trash. And then, also, they know that if they do try to roll back their policies that afford protection to accused students and survivors, students will rise up. And just like students have been very vigilant using the media, we are watching for any school that tries to weaken protections for survivors and accused students. They have student backlash to fear, which I think is a major reason why they’re keeping their policies in place.

Let me ask you, finally, Know Your IX has a quite insightful, I think, journalists’ guide, for journalists who are covering gender-based violence and campus sexual assault. What are some of the concerns you have, or thoughts you have, about the way media tend to cover this set of issues? What would you like to see maybe more or less of?

I think media coverage has dramatically improved over the years. I think there are some areas of concern which are, first, there are certain survivors who are highlighted often in the media. They tend to be white women, cisgender women, and that means a lot of the stories about what people are experiencing on campus are not being told. And, frankly, it has created a perception that only white women are accusers in rape contexts, which is just deeply untrue. And that’s what journalists like Emily Yoffe have seized upon to create their narrative, which is a false one. So I think making sure that survivors of all perspectives are being represented, and avoiding the kind of conflation of elite white female student who has been assaulted by an acquaintance at a fraternity party, which is sort of the dominant narrative.

And then, I think, the other issue that I’ve personally experienced is, often a journalist will call and will ask for a survivor’s story, and I’m happy to talk about my experience, but the reason I do that is because it provides fodder for policy discussions. But sometimes I and other survivors have found that journalists will just truncate the policy discussion, and only share the story, which is just really disempowering, and not presenting the actual picture that many of the survivors have now gone to law school, we’re deeply interested in policy, we’ve changed policy at our schools, and we’re more than just “sad raped girls,” which is really what a lot of journalists, unfortunately, have portrayed us in the media.

So I think those are the two primary issues. And then I think there are other stylistic things, like a lot of people have talked about the use of a passive voice in talking about sexual violence, which, even in the act of crafting a piece, avoids accountability for the person who perpetrated the violence. So stylistic things, and then there are also choices on who is featured, and in what context they’re featured.

Yeah, I’d like to give, actually, a shout-out to Robyn Powell at Rewire who talked about the impact of rescinding this guidance on students with disabilities, who are less likely to report assaults and are more likely to be sexually assaulted. So it seems that that coverage is coming in; maybe it’s not the main story, but we do have reporters out there who are trying to find underexplored angles on this story.

Exactly. That was a phenomenal piece. I’d like to give my own shout-out to Anna Walsh, who is the author of the toolkit, and she’s a journalist, so we kind of intended the resource as a journalist-to-journalist guide in how to cover this issue.

All right then. Well, we’ve been speaking with Alyssa Peterson. She’s state organizer at Know Your IX. You can find them online at KnowYourIX.org. Alyssa Peterson, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much for having me.