On Friday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ new rules for Title IX—a civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in education—are set to go into effect.
If that happens, student survivors will bear the brunt of an education system that is willing to sweep sexual violence under the rug in favor of perpetrators and schools’ reputations. As two recent high school graduates, we know that DeVos’ rule will have real and harmful implications for K-12 students.
When one of us was groped in the hallway of her school in the tenth grade, she reported the sexual assault to her district’s Title IX coordinator to receive support to ensure she had a safe learning environment. An investigation was launched, and a no-contact order was issued to mitigate the fear of having to interact with the person who assaulted her. But if the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) gets its way, K-12 schools would be allowed to shirk their responsibility to student survivors.
The new rule only requires schools to investigate the most extreme forms of harassment and assault, and schools are only legally mandated to act when a student’s access to education is completely denied. This means students like us would have to experience repeated and escalating harassment before action can be taken, instead of the school intervening the first time harassment occurs.
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We’ve seen the impact prolonged trauma from sexual misconduct has had on our friends. We’ve watched as they struggled academically, forced to sit in class with their perpetrators because of their school’s failure to take action. DeVos’ rule doesn’t help students. Instead, it is intended to protect the bottom lines of higher ed institutions, sweeping sexual violence under the rug at the cost of young survivors’ right to an education free from violence.
While students have been organizing around sexual violence on college campuses for years, high schools have struggled to adequately enforce Title IX.
For example, Shelby County Schools district in Tennessee had gone without a full-time Title IX coordinator for years, only hiring one at the beginning of the 2019 school year. As a result of K-12 schools failing to educate students on their Title IX rights, sexual violence and sexual harassment go largely unchecked, undermining the educational opportunities of students and at times even forcing them out of school entirely.
The new rule moves things in the wrong direction and fails to address the gaps in Title IX compliance in K-12 schools. DeVos’ rule would allow schools to ignore sexual violence that takes place outside of a school program or activity, letting too many perpetrators off the hook. This would be particularly devastating for K-12 students, as only 15 percent of adolescent sexual assaults occur on school property. Students like the 14-year-old from Virginia who was assaulted by a classmate at a park in 2017 would be left without support from their schools in the aftermath of violence. Even though assault—whether on or off campus—clearly affects a student’s ability to access education, schools will be forced to ignore survivors’ reports and allow students’ needs to fall by the wayside simply because the assault occurred off campus or outside of a school activity.
High school students are particularly vulnerable when it comes to Title IX because we depend on our schools’ teachers and administrators to guide us in understanding our rights. We need a community-wide effort to mitigate the harm from DeVvos’ new rule and provide student survivors with the resources they need to stay in school after facing violence. Adults can help by educating themselves and the students in their lives about Title IX. Teachers can facilitate conversations about how to report sexual harassment and assault, and administrators can create policies to support students instead of rolling back existing protections.
Advocates are challenging these rules in court, but you can still take action to help student survivors. Some parts of the rule give schools discretion in how they implement policies. Schools can choose to protect the rights of survivors and pick less harmful policies, but we will have to hold them accountable to make that happen. Students have a powerful voice, and we’ll need to use it to protect survivors. We want Betsy DeVvos to hear loud and clear that we will not back down; we will continue to fight for every student’s right to an education free from gender-based violence.