Illustration by Lucy Han.

New Trump Policies Could Leave Campus Assault Victims with Little Recourse

Yolanda’s case, which is now going through an appeals process, is one example of the impact the new proposed regulations on campus sexual violence issued by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may have on students.

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Sep 24 2018, 6:00pm

Illustration by Lucy Han.

After waiting almost a year for her school to issue a ruling in her campus sexual assault case, Yolanda (whose name we’ve changed to protect her privacy) finally received the news she’d been hoping for. A review panel determined there was enough evidence to find a male student responsible for sexually assaulting and harassing her.

“After a year, I [felt like I] was able to exhale,” Yolanda, 22, tells Broadly. “I was like, OK, clearly the right thing is going to happen in this situation.”

Days later, the Dickinson College senior learned how school officials planned to punish the respondent in her case: He was placed on probation and ordered to meet with the school’s Title IX coordinator to review the school’s sexual misconduct policy.

In other words, nothing happens to Yolanda’s perpetrator as long as he doesn’t get into any trouble through May 2019, when both students are set to graduate.

Yolanda says she initially thought she read the notice of sanctions incorrectly. “Once it sank in, I was really upset and honestly really disappointed in the school that I go to.”

Yolanda’s case, which is now going through an appeals process, is a prime example of the impact the new proposed regulations issued by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will have on survivors of campus sexual assault. Many advocates say the proposed rules—one of which has to do with even allowing students the right to appeal a finding in a sexual-assault case—would undermine Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education and requires schools to prevent and respond to incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

If DeVos has her way, survivors could lose the option to ask school officials to reconsider their case. For Yolanda, that leaves little opportunity for cases like hers to be resolved fairly.

Yolanda came to Dickinson, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, because she wanted to pursue her education in an intimate environment. There are a little more than 2,300 students enrolled at the school. During her freshman year, she alleges, a student she was in a dating relationship with sexually assaulted her by digital penetration one day in his dorm room.

“From what I knew about sexual assault, I had always thought of it as something that a stranger does or someone is drunk and taken advantage of,” Yolanda says. “But I never thought that someone I knew really well could do something like that. It was hard for me to process.”

For more than a year, Yolanda says she worked through the shock and trauma of the assault. Eventually, she decided to write the perpetrator a letter as a way to process what had happened. “He responded and apologized,” she recalls, “but the apology was … very minimizing of what he did. It was clear to me that he wasn’t remorseful.”

Worried about what would happen if she ran into him—especially considering how small their campus is—Yolanda decided to file a formal complaint and got a no-contact order with the school. (An email requesting comment from the student Yolanda accused of assault was unanswered as of press time.)

The investigation lasted almost a year. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recommended that a typical Title IX case should take about 60 days to complete. When DeVos issued a new temporary guidance last September, the pressure to resolve matters promptly was removed. Per the Department of Education’s Q&A on Sexual Misconduct document released last year, “There is no fixed time frame under which a school must complete a Title IX investigation.”

Yolanda says she felt like her case was “always looming in the background,” even when she took some time to study abroad. Whether it was being interviewed by investigators or responding to draft reports, she was constantly reminded of what had happened.

“More than that, it was actually something I had to put a lot of mental and emotional energy into on a regular basis,” she says.

In an emailed statement to Broadly, Dickinson’s Title IX coordinator Kat Matic wouldn’t comment on Yolanda’s specific case. But she said their goal “as a matter of policy and best practices” is to complete a case within 60 days.

“Our first priority is to conduct a thorough investigation that is fair and equitable to both parties,” she said. “Delays may occur for a variety of reasons, including the number of witnesses that must be interviewed; requests for extensions by either party; or if either party or witnesses are off campus for holidays.”

“It’s important to note,” Matic’s statement continued, “that the Title IX coordinator responds immediately after a report is received, and resources and support measures are offered to both parties.”

But enduring such a long process, Yolanda says, made it nearly “impossible” to move on with her life.

Yolanda and her attorney, SurvJustice’s interim director Carly Mee, are currently working to appeal her case, a right once guaranteed by the federal government under the Obama-era guidance. DeVos’ new proposed regulations for handling sexual misconduct allegations, however, leave it up to schools to decide whether or not to even have an appeals process. If a school does afford that opportunity in such cases, it may choose to take those appeals solely from the accused or by both parties.

An analysis from the Department of Education found that the new proposed rules would decrease the number of sexual harassment and assault investigations handled by colleges and universities, the New York Times reported recently. Catherine E. Lhamon, who served as the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Education Department for President Obama, suggested that the new administration was “aspiring to reduce the number of times a school investigates, rather than aspiring to reduce the number of harms that students experience.”

At Dickinson College, either party may appeal an outcome or sanction, according to the college’s Sexual Harassment and Misconduct Policy. “Dissatisfaction with the outcome of the investigation is not grounds for appeal,” it states.

But if the school chose to make that right to appeal available only to accused students, Yolanda would have no recourse, Mee says. “Survivors have just as much at stake, in terms of the potential to lose their education, to have to transfer to somewhere else or drop out … because their abuser remains on campus.”

Mee says their appeal is based on two points. While investigators found that there was sufficient evidence to support that the respondent engaged in sexual activity without Yolanda’s consent when he touched her vagina outside her clothing, the findings letter did not address Yolanda’s allegation of digital penetration. “It didn’t mention it at all,” Mee says. The alleged act violates another provision, Sexual Assault Related to Intercourse, in the school’s sexual misconduct policy and warranted a response under federal law, she adds. “We don’t even know if [the review panel] deliberated on it or not.”

Mee and Yolanda also believe the punishment handed down by the school was too lenient. According to the school’s sexual misconduct policy, the penalties for being found responsible for Sexual Assault Not Related to Intercourse, which is the provision the respondent violated when he was found responsible for external vaginal touching, range from probation to expulsion. Had he been found responsible for violating the Sexual Assault Related to Intercourse provision, per Yolanda’s accusation that he digitally penetrated her, the minimum punishment he might have received, according to the standard sanction range, would have been a one-year suspension from classes and other college activities.

"These survivors are wondering, 'what’s the point of putting myself through this process if, even when there’s a finding of responsibility, those sanctions are going to be so light? What benefit is there to reporting?'”

Mee says the lenient sanction the respondent received sends a clear message to other survivors “that the school is not going to really hold people accountable for such a severe policy violation. These survivors are wondering, 'what’s the point of putting myself through this process if, even when there’s a finding of responsibility, those sanctions are going to be so light? What benefit is there to reporting?'”

Since the sanctions were issued, Yolanda says she’s already seen the respondent on campus once. Dickinson rescinded their no-contact order once the investigation was completed and instead recommended that the two parties avoid one another “to preserve a hostile-free environment between the parties,” the notice of sanctions stated.

When asked about the general rationale of rescinding a no-contact order between two parties after investigators determine an incident of sexual assault had occurred, Matic, the school’s Title IX coordinator, responded that such remedies are “determined on a case-by-case basis.”

“Unless my appeal is accepted, that’s what the rest of my education at Dickinson will be like,” Yolanda says. “It’s just really upsetting.”