Meet the Advocates Making Colleges Safer After the Trump Era

Campus violence survivors and advocates have fought to restore their civil rights. The Biden administration has left them in limbo.

Photo of young protester holding sign that reads The Young are at the Gates
"One of our activists has this really great line that she says all the time: 'The justice system fails survivors, the education system fails us all,'" Lillian Frame, a SafeBAE board member, said. Austen Risolvato/Rewire News Group

As Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos obliterated the already-imperfect Title IX, the civil rights law created to protect students in schools and higher education from sex-based discrimination. Title IX was initially meant to protect female student-athletes, and it had became an important tool for student survivors of sexual violence.

Despite the Biden administration’s promise to restore survivors’ rights and reverse the Trump-era changes, the Department of Education took two years to release their proposed changes—and it might take them two more to actually put it into effect across federally funded educational institutions.

While the education department’s proposed changes were released in June, it’s still unclear when they’ll precisely go into effect. The school year is well underway, and students continue to be subject to DeVos’ destructive Title IX, such as allowing colleges to not investigate off-campus sexual assaults (around 40 percent of all student-on-student sex crimes).

Hiding behind the “freedom” of religion, she also allowed religious institutions to reject or expel students based on their sexual orientation. She even got rid of certain protections for complainants in sex abuse cases, which has given their perpetrators the ability to cross-examine their victim during Title IX hearings. Worse yet, DeVos’ rules also affected private schools, which risked losing federal funding if they didn’t abide by them.

Despite being out of office for more than two years, DeVos’ legacy has hung like a storm cloud over the heads of Title IX advocates and survivors alike. SafeBAE, a peer-to-peer sexual violence prevention nonprofit, spent the last two years issuing comments to the education department criticizing the Trump-era rules. This was strategic: The department had a policy of reading every single submission prior to enforcing any new rule.

“Our method was to just flood them with comments,” Lillian Frame, a SafeBAE board member, said. “They would have to wait a little bit longer to read through them all, and it meant winning one more day and ‘one more day’ meant one more day of survivors having those rights.”

Know Your IX, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting student survivors, moved quickly once Biden took office in 2021. That summer, the organization recruited as many people as they could to attend the Office of Civil Rights’ hearings on Title IX in June. Their strategy? “Making the government’s inaccessibility more accessible,” Know Your IX policy organizer Zoey Brewer said.

Thanks to the organization’s work and efforts to reach the public, over 280 people delivered three-minute testimonies about how their schools’ Title IX offices have failed them. Later that month, the Department of Education announced it proposed Title IX changes. But it’s been a waiting game since.

An ‘F’ for effort

Frame said the education department gets an “F” on how long it took for the proposal changes to be announced, as they won’t go into effect until mid-2023 at the earliest. Brewer echoed Frame’s disappointment. Both SafeBAE and Know Your IX pushed the Biden administration to issue a nonenforcement directive, which would allow institutions to ignore DeVos’ rules without risking their federal funding. Inexplicably, according to Brewer, the education department has been hesitant to do so.

When the changes do eventually take effect, they would protect students reporting the crime to their colleges. Currently, a victim would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt how sex abuse or discrimination harmed their ability to acquire an education. Under the proposed changes, the complainant only needs to prove the violence having the potential to damage their academic pursuits. In another example, a victim currently has to prove a crime took place with about 95 percent certainty, according to Frame. Now, however, they only need to show it was likely a crime occurred.

How the work continues

This delay has meant SafeBAE, Know Your IX, and other similar organizations, are still mitigating the current Title IX’s detrimental impact on survivors. Know Your IX went back to its roots and focused on providing legal and psychological support to individual victims. SafeBAE turned to middle and high school consent education—a tool the organization believes can stop sexual violence before it has the chance to occur.

“K-12 students are often excluded from this conversation,” Frame said. “One of our activists has this really great line that she says all the time: ‘The justice system fails survivors, the education system fails us all.’ Some people perpetuate with malicious intent. Others just don’t know.”

In the past year, Frame began managing all of SafeBAE’s Title IX pursuits and worked to engage teens into listening sessions with SafeBAE and Know Your IX. She learned about the specific gaps in their education she can bring back to SafeBAE in order to develop personalized curricula and workshops targeting K-12 sexual violence prevention needs.

I Have the Right To—an organization founded by Chessy Prout’s family in the aftermath of her assault at St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts—also engages teenagers before they might perpetuate harm, in addition to helping survivors.

The organization targets three groups that can make a meaningful impact in the prevalence of sex abuse:  students, parents, and educators. According to Chessy’s parents, Susan and Alex Prout, I Have the Right To aims to foster “an ecosystem of respect” among young people. They believe if young people perceive each other’s innate humanity, they will be less likely to perpetrate intimate violence.

“We don’t want to keep reinventing the wheel,” Susan said. “We don’t want to replicate anyone else’s good work out there. We want to see us all move as a wave horizontally to impact this issue of sexual violence.”

I Have the Right To targets three groups that can make a meaningful impact in the prevalence of sex abuse: students, parents, and educators.

For the past five years, the Prouts have been offering support to survivors and their families—legal, emotional, or otherwise. Alex and Susan recall the conversations they’ve had with others in their own shoes—they’ve learned from them and realized the systemic nature of survivors being failed, especially in private educational institutions, which don’t have to be accountable to Title IX since they don’t receive federal funding. Recently, I Have the Right To relaunched its website and uses it to promote numerous educational and support resources, many of which were inspired by the work Susan and Alex did privately since they were forced into the world of private school sex abuse. One of their action items has been a pledge anyone can take to expand their knowledge on the topic of sexual violence prevention, which serves as a step to raising awareness.

Harrison James, a high school student, co-founded Independent School End Sexual Violence Coalition. His team also aims to change the culture on their campuses from within by recruiting students from private schools and assisting them in spreading awareness about sex abuse and consent at their institutions. For them, advocacy starts with putting up fliers in the hallways and bathrooms discussing consent and ends with educating parents of future private school students on the questions they should ask the school about their kids safety from sexual violence prior to enrollment.

The Independent School End Sexual Violence Coalition believes parents hold the key to actual change at independent schools—in their wallets.

This rings true to Alex Prout, who said St. Paul’s willingly cut its federal funding in a deliberate effort to cover up the campus’ toxic rape culture that Title IX could have exposed. When Prouts asked the school about its approach to preventing future sex abuse, they were given “non-answers” about installing more lights or cameras, and it didn’t address improving its consent education, holding student perpetrators accountable, or creating a better support system for student-survivors (which was the primary reason Chessy left the school in 2014).

James and the Prouts aren’t alone in fighting back against the lawless landscape of sexual violence at private schools, many of which cannot be held accountable through Title IX—not yet, anyway. Christina Graziano, an attorney with Ketterer, Browne & Associates, had recently taken on Concordia Preparatory School, which is Baltimore, for failing to appropriately handle five separate sex abuse cases committed on their campus. While the school doesn’t have to abide by Title IX because it doesn’t receive federal funding, Graziano argued they were still getting money from the government by being tax-exempt. The judge on the case agreed; the verdict could be used as precedent in holding other non-federally funded yet tax-exempt institutions accountable under Title IX, and it would affect most U.S. private schools.

The advocacy groups mentioned in this story and even attorneys like Graziano all have one goal in common: preventing sexual violence through shorter-term advocacy for individual survivors and specific policy changes. Until Biden’s Title IX reform gets implemented, activists such as Brewer aim at supporting individual survivors still affected by DeVos’ harmful policies. For advocates such as Frame or the Prouts, their battle lies within the classrooms as they work to prevent sex abuse from occurring in the first place through consent education.

“We’re continuing to just try and mitigate harm for as long as possible,” Frame said. “We’re going to do this until the new rules are finally here. Then, we will cross whatever bridges we need.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated where St. Paul’s School is located. It is in Concord, New Hampshire, not Concord, Massachusetts.