OP-EDS

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June 7, 2017

All Bark, No Bite

Modifying Title IX disciplinary procedures could force universities to comply.

I was 16 when I first laid eyes on the University of Chicago. Hours later, my essay on why I wanted to attend wrote itself. In two hours, I wrote 1,500 words, cut it down by half, and sent it in without another thought.

My first year was everything I hoped it would be. I made friends, some good, others I would later find out, less so. I took upper-level history courses and did well; I aced my first year of Turkish. I thrived.

It was fall of my second year when someone I trusted, someone who lived in my dorm, raped me. He then proceeded to intimidate, harass, and stalk me for the better part of a year. I was only 18.

The no-contact order I sought from the University as part of my federally guaranteed Title IX protections proved useless. Despite text message evidence supporting my claims, the University made no real attempt to stop his behavior, nor would they remove him from the dorm we both lived in. I was told that I would have to move out myself or live unprotected with my rapist while I pursued disciplinary action. Fear for my physical safety made it difficult for me to focus on my classes.

For my personal safety, I chose to delay seeking real disciplinary action until the following fall, when I would move out of the dorm and leave the friends I loved for a secured building halfway across Hyde Park. At the end of this yearlong ordeal, my rapist was removed from campus until after my graduation date, along with a handful of other restrictions.

Much of the handling of my case blatantly violated the University’s Title IX obligations to me, and I have filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) as is appropriate. Under the 2011 OCR guidance, the University should have secured a non-hostile living environment for me, in such a way that I would not have to disrupt my own life to be safe. In the interim of disciplinary hearings, the University is federally mandated to take action, as well as act on any complaint of sexual violence made to responsible employees.

Further, when I initially reported in the spring of my second year, my report did not trigger the investigation that legally it needed to. I was required to submit a second complaint, in writing, which I did later that summer. Many survivors may be able to verbally report their stories but are simply not capable of putting their story into written word, because of the painful nature of such an act. The University makes a distinction between reports, which are verbal, and complaints, which are written. A no-contact order, for example, requires a report but not a complaint. The OCR guidance does not allow for such distinctions; a report to a responsible employee, no matter the medium, must trigger an investigation. The University failed me, and failed to meet their obligations.

My case isn’t the only one gravely mishandled by the administration. For the 2015–2016 school year, 112 students reported some form of sexual violence, harassment, or discrimination. Thirteen moved forward with a University hearing after which two respondents were punished, one with a suspension, one with expulsion.

One student who moved forward with disciplinary action in 2017 told me her hearing panel “feigned sympathy and compassion to [her] face, but knew the whole time that they would never, no matter what, find him responsible.” Despite verbal and written admissions of the accused’s behavior, her rapist was found not responsible, possibly because he is graduating this spring.  

Despite all of the Title IX complaints made against the University, and the problems outlined above, I am sure the University of Chicago will not be found responsible for violating federal law. In the 44 years since the legislation’s passage, only one institution of higher education has been found responsible for violating it.

Title IX seeks to eliminate sex-based discrimination in programs that receive federal money, from sports funding disparities, to sexually hostile environments.

As determined in Cannon v. University of Chicago, Title IX has two implied mandates: first, to prevent federal money from going to discriminatory institutions, and second, to provide relief to individuals discriminated against.

 As of January 2017, 223 schools have ongoing Title IX investigations. The pervasiveness of Title IX issues suggests that there is a misalignment of incentives that perpetuates this problem. It is not that Associate Dean of Students in the University for Disciplinary Affairs Jeremy Inabinet, for example, likes to see people stalked, raped, and harassed. Rather, the institution he works for does not have the proper incentives to protect survivors.  

There is currently no real enforcement mechanism for Title IX. As the law stands, if a school were to be found in violation, it would lose access to all federal money until the issue is resolved.  Many universities rely on this money to do vital research in HIV care and prevention, cancer, clean energy, and so on.

It is simply unrealistic to think that the OCR would feel it is appropriate to potentially delay something as serious as cancer treatments by stripping all federal funds from an offending school. The University of Chicago does critical research that benefits the country at large, and because of this, they believe themselves invulnerable. For the most part, they are correct.

This is not the fault of the civil rights attorneys in the Department of Education. They are not given a lot to work with, but what Olivia Ortiz and Alyssa Peterson propose in the Yale Law Journal article, “A Better Balance: Providing Survivors of Sexual Violence with ‘Effective Protection’ Against Sex Discrimination Through Title IX Complaints, would give them the tools to force change at colleges and universities across the country. They propose, in short, an amendment to Title IX to allow the OCR the right to fine schools up to one percent of their operating budget. This is a substantial amount for any school, yet not so much that it punishes the students and researchers of the university unfairly.  Given a genuine monetary incentive to follow Title IX rather than an all or nothing empty threat, schools like the University of Chicago would have the proper incentives to protect the rights of their students.

Like every student at the University of Chicago, I came here to learn. My right to access my education was hampered severely not only by the rape, which frankly could happen anywhere, but by the handling of my case. My grades suffered no matter how I tried, which broke my heart as I love my classes here. Had the University acted appropriately, I would have been safer and studying would have been far easier. If the University of Chicago truly believed in enriching the knowledge of all its students, it would fix its broken system. If it will not, hopefully the OCR will have the tools to force it to, and soon.  I will devote my life to fixing Title IX.

The author is a third-year in the College.

Editor’s Note: The Viewpoints section permits anonymous submissions when there is valid fear of emotional or physical harm.

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