Angie Epifano, Alexandra Brodsky, Landen Gambill, Sofie Karasek. Everyday the media is flooded with students disclosing sexual assaults by fellow students and the subsequent discrimination they experience by their schools. And the list of these schools -- Harvard, Yale, UNC Chapel Hill, UC Berkley, Swarthmore, Occidental, Amherst, Vanderbilt, Columbia, Dartmouth -- is growing longer and longer. As more campus sexual assault victims come forward, we cannot be shocked into thinking that these cases are just anomalies. What we should be shocked by is just how common the deplorable treatment of campus survivors really is.
When I was in college, only five years ago, Title IX and campus sexual assault were never discussed. The only reason I had ever heard of Title IX was because I was a Gender Studies major and therefore knew it had something to do with sports and gender equality.
Today, Title IX has been catapulted to the forefront of our national conscience by the epidemic of campus sexual violence seen across the country. Schools, members of congress, state legislatures, and even the White House have begun taking action to address sexual violence in our nation's institutions of higher education. Though sexual violence is certainly not new on campuses, now more than ever survivors are speaking out and using Title IX to shine a light on harmful campus policies and conduct.
I started my career in the field of sexual and domestic violence my sophomore year of college as an advocate and rape crisis counselor at a local women's center. Working with rape survivors has been deeply rewarding and became incredibly personal as close college friends began disclosing to me that they had been raped on campus. Yet, it wasn't until my final year in law school working as a law clerk with the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) that I was able to truly understand our nation's shock at the rate of campus sexual assault and the shameful treatment of survivors.
VRLC is the first law center in the nation dedicated solely to serving the legal needs of sexual assault victims. VRLC become a national leader in providing civil legal services to help restore victims' lives after an attack. When I joined the VRLC, I knew the organization had a national reputation for its representation of campus survivors. But I was surprised to learn how the experiences of my college friends, and the shocking stories that have saturated the media about campus sexual violence, were actually typical cases for a VRLC attorney. In fact, what was most shocking was how not shocking the recent media accounts of campus sexual violence were to the attorneys of the VRLC. Why? Because as the nation is just waking up to harmful campus sexual assault policies, complacent and insensitive campus administrators, and the poor treatment of survivors, these unbelievable circumstances on campuses are an everyday reality for the VRLC.
While working at the VRLC I have seen campus administrators shirk responsibility and claim that rape never happens at their school. On campus administrator even claimed that raped did not happen at his school because the female students there were virgins. I have seen campuses find an accused student responsible for the rape of another student only to give the perpetrator a warning. I have seen student survivors go before a campus disciplinary committee where a student member of the committee, who had previously called the victim a "slut" and "a whore," was allowed to sit on the panel because the school refused to disqualify this committee member. At another school, despite their own policy that prohibited an attorney from participating in a campus disciplinary hearing, they permitted the perpetrator's attorney to cross-examine the rape victim. I witnessed a school investigator tell the victim to imitate the sound she made during the assault so he could determine if the noise indicated pleasure or non-consent. If these examples scare you, then you should know that they represent the rule not the exception.
Now, with campuses rightfully focusing on making changes, congress creating new legislation, and the "White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault" leading a federal government response, I am hopeful that the response to rape victims will improve. However, as resources and information begin to flow from varying sources, we cannot forget that Title IX is not just about school's legal obligation to respond to sexual violence. Title IX is a tool that is empowering student survivors to know their rights and to demand a fair and equitable opportunity to be heard. While the media swirls with stories of discrimination against campus victims, I hope that we embrace these survivors not as distant sad stories, but as people within our own communities. These students are your friends and classmates, your nieces and nephews, and your son or daughter and they deserve to know their rights under Title IX. They deserve an education free from sexual violence. Let's not be paralyzed by shock, but take action together.
To learn more about the Title IX rights of student survivors go to VRLC's "Know You Rights: Understanding Title IX for Campus Sexual Violence Victims."
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