The COVID-19 pandemic has forced hundreds of thousands of college students to learn remotely over the past year. Many have missed out on in-person classes, socializing with friends and, for the class of 2020, graduating in person with their classmates.
But for some sexual assault survivors, the online learning that came with the pandemic has been a godsend ― a true “safe haven,” one student told HuffPost.
The virus is protecting some victims better than their own universities did, according to a new report from anti-sexual violence organization KnowYourIX. An issue student victims often face is that their school’s Title IX office, tasked with overseeing sexual assault investigations, will refuse to grant or enforce no-contact orders between a survivor and their attacker. Often, this leads victims to stop going to certain classes or even drop out of school altogether. Nearly 40% of student survivors who reported sexual violence to their schools experienced a “substantial disruption in their educations,” KnowYourIX’s survey of more than 100 student survivors found. Of those, 27% took a leave of absence, 20% transferred schools and almost 10% dropped out altogether.
Remote learning effectively became that no-contact order for survivors who were unable to get those protections from their schools. “The virus is protecting me from my assailant (since the school wasn’t going to),” one respondent said in KnowYourIX’s report.
“It took the entire country shutting down for me to feel safe. It feels like a real slap in the face,” said Michaela, a student sexual assault survivor at a university in Massachusetts who asked to be identified only by their first name. “A university that I have funneled tens of thousands of dollars into ― all of my time, all of my effort, all of my energy ― and they couldn’t even ensure my protection.”
Although remote learning doesn’t stop abusers from communicating with victims via social media, it does ensure survivors can continue their education. “What was the most shocking to me was that all of the survivors who were ‘thankful’ for COVID also shared that they didn’t think they would have been able to complete their classes if they hadn’t been moved online,” KnowYourIX manager Sage Carson told HuffPost.
For many sexual assault survivors, it can be extremely difficult to continually see their abusers in class, in their dorm rooms, at social events or just around campus. Title IX was created to ensure everyone can receive an education without fear of sex-based discrimination ― and sexual harassment and misconduct is a part of that.
“When survivors are looking over their shoulder in fear of seeing the person who harassed, assaulted, stalked or abused them, it can be impossible to participate in school the way your peers can,” said Carson. “For many survivors, not having to fear seeing their assailant can be the difference between them staying in school or not. I think this is why so many survivors are so grateful to not be on campus right now.”
Jackie, who asked that her real name not be used in this story, is a sexual assault survivor who graduated last year from a university in New England. She said her Title IX investigation wrapped the day before her school announced it would transition to remote learning. As a resident assistant, Jackie was on campus for two more weeks to help with the transition. Her assailant was also an RA, and although he had been put on leave from his job in the wake of the Title IX investigation, his RA keycard still gave him access to most buildings on campus including Jackie’s dorm building.
The night after Jackie’s perpetrator was notified of her Title IX complaint against him, she found her dorm room whiteboard vandalized. “I can’t sleep now, I’ll sleep soon SLUT,” read the message on her whiteboard. Although Jackie reported the vandalism, and evidence that her assailant had been in the building that night, her school took no action.
“I felt extremely unsafe for those couple of weeks we were both on campus,” she said. “Once I left campus, I knew that I was safe. I knew he was far away from me and he couldn’t get to me.”
Jackie moved in with her sister a couple of hours away from campus. She still battled panic attacks, flashbacks and online harassment from her perpetrator’s friends, but not seeing her abuser every day on campus allowed her to breathe a little bit easier.
“Remote learning was such a relief. I felt like I had so much weight on me, but once I left campus it was taken off,” she said. “The pandemic was a safe haven for me.” Jackie’s school didn’t contact her about how the Title IX investigation concluded until the end of April. The school said there was insufficient credible evidence to find the accused guilty.
Remote learning was such a relief. I felt like I had so much weight on me, but once I left campus it was taken off. The pandemic was a safe haven for me. Jackie, sexual assault survivor
Emma Taylor, an acting major at a college in northwest New York, told HuffPost she was assaulted on her birthday two years ago, and it left deep trauma: “I don’t celebrate anymore.” Taylor reported her assault in February 2020, a month before the pandemic hit the country. Taylor spent entire nights and days in “debilitating panic attacks” because they were surrounded by triggers just by being on campus. (Taylor uses both “she” and “they” pronouns and is referred to by both in this piece.)
Taylor said she only instigated the Title IX investigation after finding it impossible to attend school with her abuser “while staying sane.” So they were thrilled when her school started talking about the possibility of remote learning due to COVID-19 after spring break last March.
“Mind you, I’m an acting major, so taking classes remotely is almost entirely ineffective,” Taylor said. “But I’d already spent two semesters so distracted by my PTSD that I was hardly gaining anything from my education anyways. I had made peace with finishing the last two semesters solely to finish the degree that’s taken money I don’t have and left trauma I’ll always have.”
Taylor’s school concluded her Title IX complaint at the end of April, finding the person she had accused of sexual assault not guilty due to a lack of evidence. Remote learning due to COVID-19 quickly became Taylor’s only option to put distance between her and her assailant. Taking classes online allowed Taylor to eliminate environmental triggers, avoid running into her attacker and stop worrying about which friends supported her or her perpetrator. But her frustration with how her school handled her Title IX case remained.
“My disappointment was born the night of the assault and has been growing since to almost completely consume my thoughts at this point. I feel let down, abandoned and nauseous about the school’s handling of my case,” they said. “Remote learning being a lucky last chance at protection was absolutely depressing.”
That a pandemic is keeping some survivors safer than their school may be one of clearest ways to show how little schools prioritize survivors’ safety. It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for survivors to be able to go to class without fearing for their safety. Sage Carson, KnowYourIX
Another unexpected silver lining that came with COVID-19’s remote learning was that survivors were able to be around their strongest support network: their families. Jackie said moving in with her sister and her sister’s family was one of the best distractions she could have asked for.
“There were honestly times I wanted to give up because I was so exhausted,” she said. “But being with my sister and my nieces and nephews, I felt like I had a reason to keep pushing and keep moving forward because I wanted to be strong for them. I wanted them to see that their aunt could continue her studies through a pandemic and finish her thesis and go to graduate school ― all while fighting this.”
Michaela, the student from the school in Massachusetts who uses “they” and “she” pronouns, said being around family and being in their childhood home was an added comfort they didn’t realize they needed. “It was really nice to be directly near people who had my best interest at heart and knew me much more deeply than my roommates at the time,” Michaela said. “It made it so much easier to deal with everything.”
The Title IX sexual assault investigation system has never been perfect since its inception with the Obama administration’s Dear Colleague Letter, which is a set of guidelines that clarify what schools’ Title IX enforcement responsibilities are under the law. Colleges, universities and K-12 schools have a wide range of needs, and often Title IX guidance is subjective and its implementation can vary depending on campus climate and school administrations.
But Title IX adjudication only got worse when then-President Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as education secretary in 2017. DeVos completely reshaped how colleges approach sexual misconduct allegations by speeding up investigations, adding protections for those accused, and allowing schools to skirt responsibility for assaults entirely if they take place off campus. DeVos’ new policy, implemented in August 2020, took heavy guidance from so-called men’s rights activists, who believe there’s a rampant crisis of false rape allegations against men.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order this week directing the U.S. Department of Education to review DeVos’ current Title IX guidelines to “ensure consistency with the Biden-Harris administration’s policy that students be guaranteed education free from sexual violence.” Hopefully, the Biden administration will correct past missteps, but it will take some time ― time that current student survivors don’t have.
“That a pandemic is keeping some survivors safer than their school may be one of clearest ways to show how little schools prioritize survivors’ safety,” said Carson from KnowYourIX. “It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for survivors to be able to go to class without fearing for their safety.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.