The Overhaul of Title IX Must Be Trauma-Informed and Inclusive of All Survivors

What student survivors want is to be seen, heard and believed. As the Department of Education works to overhaul Title IX, this is the time for them to lead by example. 

Trigger Warning: rape and sexual assault

Earlier this month, I testified at the Department of Education’s hearings to re-examine Title IX. Over the past four years, under the direction of Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education turned its back on student survivors and their right to an education free from violence and harassment. As the executive director of End Rape On Campus, I was looking forward to the opportunity to lay out a vision for how the department can better support survivors of sexual assault and harassment—particularly those who identify as Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, LGBTQIA+, are neurodiverse, undocumented or a combination of intersectional identities. 

But as a thriving survivor of campus sexual assault and coercion, child sexual misconduct, and organizational trauma, I was jarred and disappointed by the process of testifying. As the administration works to overhaul Title IX, we want results that are trauma-informed—and the process to get there should be as well. 

A Public Healing Process Starts With Small Measures To Promote Human Dignity

When it came to offering my testimony, there were clear places where the process could have been improved to respect and value the voices of survivors. Suggestions should have been provided for how to share content and trigger warnings. Accommodations could have been made for those who may need assistance following their public comment. There were ASL interpreters available, but for those whose first language may not be English, there should have been captions, subtitles or translators made available. Student survivors had to wrap up their entire experience within a three-minute window, which for some of them had been a lifetime of trauma. 

These actions may seem small to an outside observer, but putting resources and measures in place ahead of time in order to promote human dignity can make a world of difference to a survivor. Far too many survivors of sexual violence have been failed in the past by institutions they trusted—namely the colleges and universities that are meant to uphold Title IX protections. 

Too often, student survivors experience institutional betrayal perpetrated by their college or university. This can take the form of major events like silencing students through victim-blaming and shaming tactics, reprimanding, and placing blame on a student who was sexually assaulted because they engaged in prohibited sexual misconduct on school grounds or were under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the sexual assault occurred. Institutional betrayal can also include denying student survivors access to specific academic or physical accommodations or forcing them to move off-campus or withdrawing from school altogether. 

Just like sexual trauma itself, all survivors’ experiences of institutional betrayal are not monolithic. Nevertheless, the effects of institutional betrayal experienced by survivors of sexual assault typically result in an increase of several posttraumatic symptoms such as dissociation, anxiety, sleep disturbance, and other trauma symptoms that are often quite disturbing and perplexing. What once felt like sweeping under the rug, has now become shoveling shit against the tide. 

What student survivors want is to be seen, heard and believed. They want leaders to be brave enough to go against the status quo, hold their community accountable for sexual harassment or any other type of misconduct, and foster a sense of commitment of truly putting students first over their bottom line. As the Department of Education works to overhaul Title IX, this is the time for them to lead by example. 

Powerful Stories Need to Fuel Meaningful Reforms

By my estimation, there were at least 250 student survivors and advocates, parents, school administrators, Title IX coordinators, men’s rights advocates and others who provided commentary. During the testimony, there were moments of relief coupled with sadness when you heard from a student survivor, a parent of a survivor, or a fellow survivor advocate, who came prepared and was very clear in their declaration. You learned that many students had to face retaliation not only from their perpetrator, but also from the school. Moreover, you learned how detrimental the live, cross-examination process is for student survivors, especially those who couldn’t afford lawyers like their perpetrator, or had to endure retraumatizing victim-blaming questions. 

The Overhaul of Title IX Must Be Trauma-Informed and Inclusive of All Survivors
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An Oppose Betsy DeVos protest in Washington, D.C., in January 2017. (Ted Eytan / Flickr)

Several student advocates and survivors are taking command and demanding the Department of Education to “raise the bar” in writing provisions that protect all students, and especially survivors. You can hear the bravery in their voices and recognize the courage they had to muster as they came forward to share even just small glimpses of their trauma.

One student, who self-identified as a gay man, recalled their assault that took place during their freshman year of college and talked about how if the current Betsy DeVos-era Title IX regulation was in place, his perpetrator wouldn’t have been held responsible. However, later on, when he decided to apply to law school, he found out the perpetrator was accepted to the same school. He reported what happened to the new school, only to be told that nothing could happen other than providing accommodations to the survivor because the assault didn’t take place at that institution. 

These student survivors, and every student, deserve an education that is free from violence. They deserve Title IX protections that include education about the intersectionality of sexual violence and that expand the definition of sexual harassment to ensure students’ experiences are taken seriously. They deserve regulations that explicitly prohibit retaliation so that survivors do not have to fear coming forward. They deserve transparency from their institutions and accommodations that support their continued access to education. 

That’s what we will be working with the Biden administration to deliver. And I hope we reach this goal through a process where all voices—particularly those which have been silenced in the past—have the opportunity to be heard. 

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About

Kenyora Parham is the Executive Director of End Rape On Campus (EROC), which works to end campus sexual violence through direct support for survivors, prevention through education, and policy reform. Kenyora has served over the past decade working with youth and families, college students and administrators, and community and government leaders.