Colleges Leave Sexual Assault Survivors In Limbo As Coronavirus Spreads

Title IX processes are being delayed across the country -- leaving many survivors to wonder what justice looks like during a pandemic.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

When Rachel found out her school was moving all students off campus to begin remote learning during the coronavirus outbreak, she started making plans to relocate. She emailed her school’s residential office, and it got back to her within an hour. She reached out to financial aid, and two hours later someone returned her call. She also emailed the Title IX office to see what this meant for her pending sexual assault case and, days later, she hasn’t heard anything.

“I’m feeling very left in the dark about the whole process,” said Rachel, a student at Salem State University in Massachusetts. (Rachel is not her real name; HuffPost does not disclose the identity of potential sexual assault victims.) “With everything going on, I feel like they’re just sweeping my Title IX case under the rug.”

Title IX is the federal civil rights law used in part to adjudicate sexual harassment and assault complaints on college campuses.

Rachel, and several other students who spoke with HuffPost, described the confusion and uncertainty around their ongoing Title IX cases in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, which has shut down schools and workplaces across the country. Title IX adjudication has long been a problematic process, especially under the Trump administration. Sexual assault survivors and experts tell HuffPost the pandemic is making a flawed system worse ― and that delayed cases could mean no justice served at all, since some alleged abusers may graduate before they ever face a consequence.

Sage Carson, manager of the anti-sexual violence organization Know Your IX, has heard from at least 15 students whose schools have given little to no guidances on how their pending Title IX cases will continue, if at all, amid the outbreak. Carson told HuffPost that many survivors have seen other pending disciplinary cases still move forward, such as plagiarism accusations or roommate disputes. Title IX complaints, however, seem to be stuck in the mud.

“We know that schools don’t always think of survivors first ― or even second,” Carson said. “So, knowing that it may take a long time for administrators to address this issue during the coronavirus can be very scary.”

Rachel said she’s worried that if her case isn’t resolved before the semester ends, the man under investigation, a senior, may graduate and avoid any punishment. She’s also dealing with the isolation of being home, where only one person knows she was assaulted. Her parents and other close friends have no idea what she was going through on campus.

“With everything going on, I feel like they’re just sweeping my Title IX case under the rug.”

- Rachel, sexual assault survivor

Delaying Title IX processes can also affect people who are accused in complaints. Some pending Title IX complaints may be affected differently depending on school rules. Unlike in Rachel’s case, if the possibility of a Title IX sanction is expulsion, then the school may withhold the accused person’s diploma until the case is decided. If the accused can’t graduate, they also can’t apply for higher education programs or jobs.

Alex, a queer recent college graduate, said her delayed Title IX case has “been a really re-traumatizing experience” and has caused her anxiety. Alex (also not her real name) filed a Title IX complaint at the Illinois Institute of Technology in November, she said, after she was raped by a student there. Last week, nearly five months after her initial filing, the school notified her they would hold an in-person campus judicial board hearing. This week, she’s wondering what an in-person hearing even looks like during a pandemic. When she reached out to her Title IX office, staffers were wondering the same thing.

She’s fought to get answers about her case long before the coronavirus pandemic was declared, Alex said. Now she’s angry and exhausted from being “stuck in this weird limbo,” and she’s even contemplating dropping her complaint.

“I’m not even asking for fluency. I’m asking for competency,” Alex said. “I’m asking for them to show up and be transparent with me. I just want at least a skeleton plan. I want them to say, ‘Since we’re not doing anything on campus right now, this is what we’re going to do. These are the options that you have. These are your rights in this process.’”

“I’m not even asking for fluency. I’m asking for competency. I’m asking for them to show up and be transparent with me.”

- Alex, sexual assault survivor

While these are unprecedented times, schools need to be transparent and need to prioritize giving survivors as much autonomy in the Title IX process as possible, said Carson, from Know Your IX. Title IX ensures that victims of sexual violence can continue their education safely during an investigation process and gives students continued access to mental health services offered by the school.

“Sexual violence takes away control from someone,” Carson said. “So making sure that survivors have choices and those choices are in their hands is one of the most important things that advocates and schools can do. When schools go silent, it can bring a lot of fear for survivors who have been really grappling with trying to gain back some control in their lives.”

Sabrina (not her real name), a senior at a college in Florida, is going through her second Title IX investigation after she filed her first against a male student she had accused of stalking her last year. She filed her second complaint earlier this year, she said, when the stalking escalated and the student raped her.

She’s been surprised at the office’s lack of response, given that it’s closed in the past for emergencies, such as hurricanes.

“There’s a lack of communication because the school doesn’t have the resources that we need. We only have one person in the Title IX office. Everything is on her right now, and the school refuses to help out at all,” Sabrina, who said she’s been given no updates on her pending case, told HuffPost.

All three survivors who spoke to HuffPost said they were exasperated by the idea that the coronavirus outbreak could prolong their Title IX cases even more. None of them had much confidence in their schools’ ability to prioritize justice for survivors.

“Universities love to pretend that sexual assault on campus doesn’t happen,” Rachel said. “And I feel like this is giving them an excuse to ignore it more than usual.”

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