I Was Sexually Harassed by a Classmate. The University Thought I Was the Problem.

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Culture & Conversation Law and Policy

I Was Sexually Harassed by a Classmate. The University Thought I Was the Problem.

Angela DeCristofano

Survivors of sexual violence are routinely pushed out of school and denied educations. Any new Title IX rule from the Biden administration must stop that.

After I was sexually harassed by a classmate, I sought help from my university, believing my concerns would be taken seriously. I was wrong. Instead, the university refused to investigate the harassment, and I was dismissed from my graduate program.

I am not alone. Roughly 40 percent of student survivors who sought help from their schools had their education disrupted due to institutional neglect, according to a survey of more than 100 survivors who reported sexual violence to their schools. (The survey was conducted last fall by Know Your IX, a campaign with which I’m involved.) Survivors of sexual assault and harassment are routinely denied our rights to education, and our schools rarely prioritize our safety.

The Department of Education recently announced they have begun reviewing former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ Title IX rule. To start, they’re holding listening sessions to ensure the rule actually meets the promise of Title IX—to ensure all students can learn, free from discrimination on the basis of sex.

To meet this goal, the department must not just undo the harms caused by the previous administration’s regulation. It should also ensure that any future Title IX rule improves survivors’ access to education by committing to end survivor pushout—a term for the punitive practices that encourage or force survivors to leave school after experiencing sexual violence.

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After enduring months of harassment and abuse by another student in my small graduate program, I finally told my abuser I was ending communication with him. I was proud that I finally stood up for myself. A few hours later, I unexpectedly got a call from campus police; in retaliation, my abuser had falsely reported to a professor that I was actively suicidal. So while I was home studying for finals, the local police were on their way to transport me to the hospital for a psychiatric emergency that did not exist.

Even after I attempted to stop the harassment and abuse, my abuser continued to harm me and my educational success. It really scared me.

Fearing for my safety, I completed the remainder of my coursework for the semester independently and met with the director of student conduct to discuss my options. The only formal option offered was a no-contact order between me and my harasser that would not prevent us from attending classes together. I was never given the option to file a formal complaint.

A university administrator confirmed what I already suspected: “They do not care about facts; they just want you out.”

The following semester, I had five required courses with this student and struggled to remain in class, often leaving the classroom in a panic or in tears. I struggled to focus on my coursework and discussed my challenges with professors and disability services, informing my department administrators that I felt unsafe in classes with my harasser. Instead of providing me the support I needed to stay in school following sexual harassment, the department chair said, “You could get over it and move on, you could take a leave of absence, or you could drop out.”

It was clear from this moment forward that my university was going to do nothing to help me stay in school. If anything, the university thought I was the problem. Case closed.

All I wanted was to be able to attend classes without having to share the classroom with my harasser, but instead I was placed on a performance improvement plan. My department claimed it was for engaging in the “unprofessional behavior” of speaking to my professors and peers about the harassment I experienced. I felt betrayed and alienated by faculty who used to highly value me as a student. My previously approved disability accommodations were suddenly seen by my professors as unfeasible and disruptive. I felt like I was being set up to fail—and I was right.

A few weeks later, I was dismissed from the program for behaviors such as taking breaks from class and crying in the hallway. An administrator confirmed what I already suspected: “They do not care about facts; they just want you out.” I appealed the dismissal, and my appeal was accepted once it was finally reviewed by an impartial administrator.

I weighed my options and knew I would likely continue to be unfairly judged if I remained in this program. I transferred to another university, spending nearly three times what I would have on tuition had I not gone through the dismissal process. I lost academic opportunities that would have been monumental for my career, like opportunities to speak at conferences and co-author manuscripts featuring research I had been working on for several months. My life was essentially put on hold for a full academic year.

Sexual harassment has devastating social, psychological, and economic impacts on survivors. But survivors continue to be punished by schools for coming forward and seeking help. In fact, according to the Know Your IX survey, 15 percent of respondents were threatened with or faced punishment by their school in connection to reporting—and a majority of those survivors were pushed out of school.

To stop the punishment and pushout of student survivors, the Department of Education should prohibit punishment of survivors for behavior ancillary to their trauma and should instruct schools to assess conduct infractions and any other disciplinary action against a student who has formally, or informally, disclosed an experience of sexual harassment or assault to the school. If that behavior might be linked to the traumatic experience, the school should avoid marking the student’s record or penalizing them. Instead, the school should take supportive measures to remedy any harm and create a plan to support the student.

When schools violate survivors’ rights and jeopardize our safety, they should be held accountable. If the Department of Education wants to ensure that all students can learn, free from sex discrimination, it must rescind and rewrite the Title IX rule to ensure schools respond to all sexual harassment, and it must hold universities accountable when survivors are intentionally pushed out of school because of sexual violence. Because no survivor should be denied access to education or be punished for seeking help.