“‘90 percent of [sexual assault accusations]…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 she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’ ”
These are the chilling words of Candice Jackson, leader of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
With the support of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Jackson began investigating policies enacted by the Obama administration that increased protections for victims of sexual assault. Last month, the Office for Civil Rights announced a plan to “scale back” Title IX investigations.
Title IX prohibits sexual harassment, sexual violence or gender-based discrimination that interferes with a person’s ability to pursue educational opportunities. Title IX is supplemented by the Clery Act, a policy requiring universities that receive financial aid to publish a yearly crime report which includes sexual violence.
In May of 2014, the Obama administration published a list of universities under federal investigation for possible violations of Title IX. The rationale underlying this push was simple: transparency leads to greater accountability, creating the capacity for solidarity among victims and informed public dialogue.
This discourse is essential given that at least one in four students will be sexually assaulted while in college. Even with the sobering frequency of this crime, stigma and fear of isolation deter students from coming forward. RAINN estimates that just 20% of college-age females report incidences to the police. Declining rates on a Clery report does not necessarily mean that fewer incidences of violence are occurring; often, it signals that students are not reporting them.
Meanwhile, Jackson is threatening to end the practice of publicly disclosing Department of Education investigations—a record she deemed a “list of shame”—because it lies beyond her responsibilities “to threaten, punish or facilitate drawing media or public attention” toward institutions. Instead, she recommends relying on the “good faith” of universities to protect students as they see fit.
Universities are more likely to handle complaints appropriately when they expect to be under a microscope—and the public maintains this scrutiny when legal bodies fall short. The Department of Education has not levied a single fine throughout 419 investigations. Three hundred and fifty cases remain unresolved.
Moreover, disclosure enables dialogue. Media attention amplifies personal narratives, reminding survivors they are not alone while keeping the issue at the forefront of public consciousness. Activist groups like Know Your IX help survivors access vital support networks and understand their rights. Campaigns like It’s On Us provided tools to help schools shift the way they think and talk about sexual assault.
Students deserve to know if the university they attend, or plan to attend, is being investigated—just as new residents are notified when moving into a neighborhood with a registered sex offender, or community members are informed that their water supply may be contaminated. Local crime reports have always been public record; sexual assault data should be no different.
As Jackson considers the path forward, she should look to the few institutions that rely on the discretion of leadership to evaluate how these systems fare. Federal service academies—which include the Air Force Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, the Merchant Marine Academy, the Naval Academy and the Military Academy— remain exempt from Title IX and the Clery Act. Title IX passed before academies even admitted women, but the exception has endured in the statutes for 35 years. Instead of filing complaints with the Department of Education, military students report incidents up their academy’s chain of command. The uniform code of military justice outlines harsh punishments for offenders, but few sanctions exist when academies violate or mishandle complaints about these offenders.
Military academies have cultivated a reputation for indifference to assault accusations, with deeply embedded sexism woven into the fabric of their culture. Just this March, a Facebook scandal caught public attention when male service members distributed thousands of nude photos of female colleagues—including names and ranks.
The Defense Department admits that the estimated rate of assault far exceeds the number it records. The Pentagon reported that 12 percent of academy women and 2 percent of academy men experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2016. However, anonymous surveys revealed numbers closer to 48 percent for women and 12 percent for men.
In other words, nearly half of military academy women should expect to encounter harassment.
And it’s not difficult to understand why many hesitate to come forward: approximately 1 of 2 female cadets and midshipmen who reported a sexual assault to the Defense Department experienced retaliatory behavior in 2016.
This flawed model should hardly serve as the blueprint for America’s universities and the more than 20 million students they encompass. When transparency is washed away, accountability erodes by its side. People are either forced to leave hostile environments or suffer in silence within them, unacceptable fates to which we cannot condemn 5 million students.
But in trying to stifle national conversations, Jackson has affirmed the permeability of our stories and the potency of our voices. We can take action by doing the very thing she fears: speaking out. As the Department of Education’s plans unfold, we must take advantage of existing public data to launch informed conversations, write our representatives and intensify the efforts of advocacy groups. Together, we can reinforce the notion that transparency is essential to democracy.
By doing so, we protect America’s greatest natural resource: its next generation of leaders.
This column originally appeared as a blog post on socialconnectedness.org on 8/11.