The U.S. Department of Education has angered women’s rights advocates by proposing an overhaul of Title IX, the landmark law that has been used since the 1980s to hold schools accountable for preventing and responding to sexual violence against students.
The proposed changes would strip away many protections against sexual violence that students have under Title IX. Now these protections are under threat not just for college students, but for child victims in K-12 schools, too.
While Title IX was intended to protect equal access to education for women and girls, it also protects the men and boys who experience the terrible consequences of sexual violence in schools, from kindergarten through college. To strip them of even these bare protections of the law does no service to boys and men.
One in 6 men in America is a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of sexual abuse. In 2017 data covering the hundreds of thousands of child abuse cases handled by the nation’s 854 Children’s Advocacy Centers that year, 24 percent of perpetrators were cited as an “other known person,” like a neighbor or doctor. Or a classmate, teacher or coach.
The proposed new rules would make it harder to prevent that abuse from happening and harder to hold schools and perpetrators accountable when it does. They would ignore the “low-level” sexual misconduct like inappropriate comments or groping that research tells us is a precursor to child sexual abuse. They would also create safe spaces for abusers by limiting schools’ responsibility to address sexual assaults that happen off-campus, even when a child is assaulted by a classmate or teacher. They would even interfere in the neutral, fact-finding investigative process by subjecting child victims to cross-examination by their abusers, ensuring that the process of seeking justice and support services is as traumatic as possible and discouraging victims from coming forward.
One in 6 men in America is a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of sexual abuse.
The agony of male survivors stalks the halls of the schools we attended as children. It lurks in the locker rooms where we went to football camp. It haunts classrooms where after-school tutorials turned to abuse. It infests the margins of our memories, crowding out the boyhood joys of scouting, of learning or of sports with private pain. That old poison, sexual abuse, leads men and women to despair, depression, drinking and even early death.
The first course of the antidote to this poison is belief — belief in the victims of sexual violence, the acknowledgment of their bravery, and the understanding that they risk so much, and often stand to gain so little, by telling what has happened to them.
The cultural conversation that peaked during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight incorrectly pitted men against women and pitted victims of sexual violence against those who, for whatever reason, believe they may one day stand wrongfully accused. Yet false sexual assault claims are no more common than false reports of other crimes, estimated at 2-10 percent of all reported assaults — and most assaults go unreported.
A countermovement arose based on the false premise that false sexual assault claims, which are vanishingly rare, are commonplace. Now, the misinformation and fear-mongering of the #HimToo movement, which frightened parents and school leaders, has metastasized into a harmful federal policy.
The misinformation and fear-mongering of the #HimToo movement, which frightened parents and school leaders, has metastasized into a harmful federal policy.
This misguided policy shift focuses on the extremely rare instances of young men being falsely accused, rather than on the heartbreakingly common experiences of children and adults who disclose experiences of sexual violence with the virtual guarantee that someone important to them won’t believe them or will add to their trauma.
Survivors need belief. Their healing begins with the words: I believe you. The countervailing disbelief is at the heart of these heartless Title IX changes.
Another thing survivors need is a fair chance at getting justice and support services when something bad happens to them at school. Is the Department of Education really concerned that there’s too little sexual assault in our schools, or that it’s too easy for children to find a school leader who believes them and will do the right thing? This, in an era when institutions of all kinds are discovering there’s hell to pay for ignoring the truth? When as many as one-quarter of college women are sexually assaulted while in school? Twenty million men — and many, many more women and non-binary people — have been victimized by sexual violence. They don’t need fewer protections. They need more.
Keeping these protections for our nation’s schoolchildren in place is our collective responsibility, and I encourage individuals and institutions to submit comments opposing the rule changes before the Jan. 28 deadline. But in particular, I appeal to the parents who are so worried about their sons facing false accusations that they are in favor of throwing out these victim protections.
I can empathize with the many parents who have kept themselves up at night with this question: Who will believe my son if he’s accused? Yet if we ignore the crisis of sexual abuse and assault in our schools, we must be prepared to ask ourselves the more tragic question: Who will believe my son if he’s the one who gets hurt?
Blake Warenik serves as director of communications at National Children’s Alliance, the nation’s largest network of care centers for child victims of abuse.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the deadline for submitting comments opposing the rule change. It is Jan. 28, not Jan. 29.