Ever since 2013, Valentine’s Day has carried tremendous weight for me. On Valentine’s Day of that year, I sat in an unheated lawyer’s office, chilled by the Chicago winter. Inside this unassuming and bitterly cold room, I made the most difficult decision of my young life: to file a Title IX complaint against the University of Chicago. In my complaint, I alleged that the University had conducted an informal mediation in response to my report of sexual violence perpetrated by my ex-boyfriend, a clear violation of Title IX according to the Department of Education’s (DOE) 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter.” I officially filed the complaint in April of 2013 and, in late June, the DOE decided to open an investigation. In filing the complaint, I sought justice for what I and others had endured at the hands of the University.
The five years of the investigation were grueling. They took an enormous toll on my mental health and fractured my relationships with University administrators. The administrator central to the events of my complaint oversaw the offices where I worked my student jobs. This dynamic destroyed my ability to develop professional relationships. In 2014, I began talking to local and national media outlets about my complaint, and I became defined by the most challenging experiences of my life. The rift between me and administrators deepened, and I isolated myself from classmates out of shame. I grew more and more disengaged from the learning process. I struggled to do my homework and often skipped class due to the anxiety of having to see administrators and interact with classmates. My experiences led me to drop out of school three times, and I eventually moved back to Arizona, heartbroken to leave behind the school that was once my dream. Five years later, things have changed radically at UChicago, on a national level, and for me personally.
During the Obama administration, survivors could cite Title IX guidance and rely on the DOE as a means of holding schools accountable. The DOE worked with student survivors to create Title IX guidance that affirmed survivors’ rights and clarified schools’ complex obligations under Title IX. For the first time in American history, survivors of sexual violence at the university level had a promising means to achieve personal and systemic justice.
UChicago, too, saw significant changes. In 2013, my classmates and I created a student survivor advocacy organization, Phoenix Survivors Alliance. We used the Obama administration’s Title IX guidance to initiate two sexual misconduct policy overhauls and mandatory Title IX education for all faculty, students, and staff. We made UChicago a new place.
When the Trump administration gained control of the DOE in 2017, the agency rescinded the same guidance that we used to transform UChicago. The DOE released incoherent guidance that, among other things, permitted schools to conduct informal mediations in cases of sexual violence. The message was clear: The DOE no longer supported survivors of sexual violence.
For the moment, survivors have lost a powerful tool to hold their schools accountable. At UChicago, Phoenix Survivors Alliance has identified significant ongoing problems with how the University conducts investigations and hearings. Disciplinary committee members are poorly trained, and the hearings have been inconsistent with policy guidelines, among other issues. Whereas the DOE once offered an opportunity to secure the rights survivors were guaranteed under federal law, the agency now offers us nothing.
The recent changes at the DOE have affected me profoundly. This July, the DOE notified me that they found no violation of Title IX in either my individual case or at UChicago as a whole. As grounds for this finding, they cited the provision in the 2017 interim guidance which allows for informal mediation in cases of sexual violence. During both alleged violations in my complaint and at the time of filing, the Obama era guidance was very much in place, but the DOE assessed my complaint in terms of the recent guidance. The DOE failed me and other UChicago students by applying dubious standards to invalidate a relatively straightforward complaint.
Despite this devastating outcome, I consider myself victorious in my efforts. Since that Valentine’s Day in 2013, I graduated from UChicago with my A.B. in linguistics, and I am pursuing my J.D. at a place where I am thriving. I plan to use my degree to fight for those who are just like me: student survivors whose rights have been violated. Although I did not receive the justice I desired or deserved from the DOE, I feel my own sense of justice flowing through my veins when I look up at my college diploma, when I raise my hand in class, or when I receive positive feedback on difficult assignments. Each day, I savor the privilege of engaging in my education, a hard-won fruit of the labors of my friends, family, lawyers, and, of course, myself. My journey demands no less.
Olivia Ortiz is an alum of the College (A.B. ’16).