Trigger Warning: Discussions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, interpersonal violence and Title IX.
Editor's note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.
For student organizers and survivor-advocates across the country, August 14, 2020 marked a climax in the tensions between university administrations, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Title IX reform groups. This was the day Secretary DeVos’ hotly contested new Title IX rule went into effect, rolling back protections for survivors and allowing academic institutions to shirk accountability for sexual harassment and assault committed by and against their students.
In the months prior to that date, I was part of a group of survivors and Title IX advocates that wrote the official student recommendations for the UT System’s response to the new rule. As a survivor myself and veteran of UT’s Title IX process, witnessing the impact DeVos’ changes were going to have on my University was horrifying. My own Title IX case lasted almost a year, forced me out of my major, cost my family thousands in legal fees and nearly led to me dropping out of UT — not to mention the retraumatization and debilitating effects on my mental health. Even before the new rule went into effect, experiences like mine were common among survivors who chose to report to the University. Now, with DeVos’ changes, an already hostile process is even more burdensome for survivors.
The Department of Education’s 2,000 page document narrows the definition of sexual assault and absolves schools of responsibility for investigating Title IX violations that occur off campus or on study abroad trips, as well as lifting the previous sixty-day guideline for Title IX investigations. Though DeVos claims the changes strengthen “due process” in Title IX investigations, what they really do is give educational institutions legal backing for ignoring assault, conducting lengthy and retraumatizing investigations, swinging the process even more in favor of the accused by raising the already difficult to meet standard of evidence, and calling for live cross-examination of survivors by anyone the accused chooses, including a fraternity brother, family member or lawyer.
While UT has made progress in its Title IX protections thanks to the tireless work of survivors and student organizers, we can’t allow the University to stop there. The adoption of Husch Blackwell’s recommendations and new student-friendly leadership in the Title IX office demonstrate a recent willingness from administration to listen to the voices of students. Now more than ever, it’s important to keep the pressure on UT President Jay Hartzell and the Title IX Office to resist DeVos’ new Title IX rule and deliver on the promises they made, including a new restorative practices program designed to repair the harm caused by sexual misconduct. Survivors shouldn’t have to fight the University during a pandemic and tumultuous election year to make sure they are protected from abuse, but UT has shown time and time again that it will only be moved by loud, persistent pressure from students. Now is the time to raise your voice to ensure that all students are afforded a safe and equitable learning environment free from sexual misconduct. Now is the time to demand more from our University leadership. Now is the time to stand for survivors.
Ross is a government senior, founder of the Interpersonal Violence Prevention Coalition and a former Student Government Interpersonal Violence Prevention Policy Director.