Dozens of students rallied outside the Department of Education headquarters on Monday morning, many of them wearing their college T-shirts, to deliver a petition with nearly 120,000 signatures demanding that the Department hold colleges accountable in preventing sexual violence on their campuses, as required by federal law.
The “ED Act Now” rally and petition asked for increased and stricter enforcement of Title IX, a 1972 law prohibiting gender-based discrimination that requires any college receiving federal funding to ensure equal access to education, free from sexual harassment and assault. Survivors and other activists in the ED Act Now movement are demanding strong, enforced sanctions for colleges found non-compliant under the law. Several of them met with department officials after the rally to discuss the petition’s demands.
The past few years have seen a rising tide of Title IX complaints from students alleging that college administrations have mishandled sexual assault cases and failed to enact prevention measures. Student activists across campuses have been connecting online to coordinate filing complaints. Monday’s protest was the first time that many of them met in person.
“As survivors and allies, we are calling on the Department to join us in the fight against sexual violence by making sure that the law is properly enforced,” key organizer Alexandra Brodsky told ThinkProgress. “The Department of Education is not the enemy here. We really understand that [they] believe in this, and we’re asking them to be a stronger ally.” Organizer Wagatwe Wanjuki added that if properly enforced, Title IX complaints could be a process that survivors can access regardless of economic status.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has issued guidance since 2011 instructing colleges to enforce sexual violence prevention measures, but activists pointed out that only one school has been found non-compliant and sanctioned so far, whereas many others enter into voluntary agreements with the OCR. “This strategy of all carrot and no stick may be well-meaning, but it is ineffective,” reads the petition.
Survivors spoke about their university administrations routinely ignoring reports, particular problems faced by students of color and queer students, and retaliation faced by complainants. “It took years for our Title IX coordinator to investigate my case. We need federal intervention at ASU because the administration charged with protecting students has already demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to do so,” said Jasmine Lester, an Arizona State University student. “I want to file a complaint, but seeing how hesitant the Department is to enforce this law, I’m nervous that turning to the OCR won’t bring change.”
Here’s what other students and activists at rally had to say:
Sofie Karasek, University of California — Berkeley: “There are students who don’t feel safe in their homes, they don’t feel safe going out at night. It’s not legal and it’s not morally correct that this is happening. We need to take a stance because this has been happening for so long, and schools have just swept it under the rug. … Our administration has largely stonewalled us and said that we don’t know what we’re talking about.”
Hannah Slater, Yale University: “[The OCR] did not find Yale non-compliant, but neither did they find Yale complaint. They entered an agreement for Yale to undertake measures for improvement, which is great, but I feel like my school has not been held properly accountable for the ways in which they have failed their students.”
Charles Clymer: “At every college campus with over 6000 students, there is at least one rape every day, according to FBI data. … We need to say, loud and clear, to college officials: if a rape occurs and you ignore it or bury it, you will be held just as responsible as the rapist.”
Sarah Gutman, University of Pennsylvania: “Too many of my friends have been affected by this, and I’m sick of it. Something needs to change. The people here are what’s going to change that. … It’s our culture that allows such violence to be so pervasive and continue. People are looking at this as isolated incidents, but they’re all symptoms of the same disease.”
John Kelly, Tufts University (right): “Something that’s really overlooked is what happens to male survivors, both those who are LGBTQ and those who are not. Oftentimes this is framed as gender violence and women’s rights issue, which it is, but it is also a human rights issue. Every day, more and more males are coming forward, reporting sexual violence … That’s something that needs our national attention.” (Photo credit: Laura Dunn)
Sasanka Jinadasa, Harvard University: “Especially for people of color and queer people on our campuses, our colleges are not doing enough. … We’re working hard on making sure that survivors’ stories are heard. One of those ways is having more transparent access to Title IX complaints, but in order for that to be effective, Title IX needs to be enforced on campuses.”
Tucker Reed, University of Southern California: “The more complaints that are filed, the less stigma is going to be lodged at these schools that have filed so far. This is a huge issue across the country, and we need to fix it. We need to be honest that this is an epidemic. The number is 1 in 4: when that’s a sickness, we call it a plague. … Everybody is doing this wrong. We can fix this if we just donate the time, the energy, and the talent to tackling this.”
Carolyn Luby, University of Connecticut: “The administration was aware of [the retaliation against me] and did nothing. They said nothing. They sent out no campus-wide communications saying that sexual harassment or hate crimes were a suspendable or expellable offense. They said nothing at all to cease this behavior from happening. … UConn cares more about their image than they do about the actual safety of their students.”
Kerry Barrett, University of Montana: “It is being framed as an elite school problem, but it isn’t. It’s everywhere. … The scope needs to be broadened.”