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February 1, 2019

“One of the Hardest Things to Do”: A Conversation With a Survivor About Filing a Title IX Complaint

The Title IX process is already dehumanizing, but proposed changes will only make it harder for survivors to find justice.

Seeing as I’m not an elderly woman, “Heavens to Betsy!” isn’t something I often exclaim. After first reading Betsy DeVos’s proposed changes to Title IX, however, the phrase (interspersed with a few choice expletives) felt sickeningly appropriate. While DeVos claims her new regulations will balance the scales between accuser and accused in cases of sexual harassment, the reality is that most of the changes work toward a somewhat less noble end: helping to cover universities’ asses by making it more difficult for survivors to file complaints in the first place. Although the changes are not yet set in stone, the resistance against these federal regulations needs to start now—to do otherwise will be to usher in a system that only propagates silence.

To better understand the implications of DeVos’s Title IX changes, I sat down with UChicago student Alice Parsons* to discuss the proposal. Parsons is a second-year in the College, and last year she went through the process of filing a Title IX complaint after she was assaulted in her dorm. As we discussed some of the most heinous of the proposed changes, Parsons reflected on how her experience might have differed had they been law at the time she filed her complaint.

Redefining sexual harassment

When I asked what unsettled her most about DeVos’s proposal, Parsons immediately began talking about the Secretary of Education’s move to redefine what constitutes sexual harassment. Under the new regulations, sexual harassment would only include “conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access” to education.

This new definition would raise the standard of evidence to a level equal parts unreasonable and ambiguous. In order for behavior to be “pervasive,” survivors may have to endure repeated harassment before they can file a Title IX complaint. As it was, Parsons already felt she had trouble moving her case forward because she escaped her attacker before he could complete the act. If she knew there was a higher standard of evidence in place, she said she probably wouldn’t have come forward at all.

The third condition, that harassment be “objectively offensive,” is ridiculous and ironic in its absolute subjectivity. Who gets to deem an act offensive? Offensive to whom? If a survivor makes the decision to withstand the emotionally taxing process of filing a Title IX complaint, isn’t it already safe to assume that they have been more than “offended”?

“The wording of [the new definition] is so unclear,” Parsons said. “It’s basically implying that if you’re not at the point where you’re going to drop out of school or start missing classes, they wouldn’t take your case.”

Indeed, only considering cases of harassment that deny “equal access to education” is a dangerous standard, as it would allow schools to turn a blind eye to the pain survivors endure. In the aftermath of her attack last year, Parsons said she was “seriously suffering.” She couldn’t sleep, and to this day she has PTSD attacks in the dorm bathrooms. It was incredibly difficult for her to get out of bed every morning to go to class—but she did, and therefore still had “equal access to education.” If the proposed definition had been in effect last year, Parsons doesn’t think her case would have been accepted at all, despite the obvious mental and emotional toll of the assault.

“These regulations don’t take into account that even if there isn’t a quantifiable data point that shows that [the assault] is deeply affecting you, it doesn’t mean that it’s actually not,” Parsons said.

“Real knowledge” regulation

Most universities, including UChicago, have policies that require “responsible employees” to file reports to the Title IX office if they become aware of sexual harassment. It was because of this policy that, when Parsons told her R.A. what had happened to her, Parsons’s R.A. was mandated to contact the Title IX office.** Under the proposed law, however, universities will only be liable if a single designated official has knowledge of harassment. This will incentivize policies that condone inaction from other employees, making it more difficult for accusers to file reports and access the resources they need.

Soon after her R.A. filed for her, Parsons received an e-mail from the Title IX office that helped walk her through her options. This included the first steps to filing a complaint, should that be the path she wanted to pursue.

“Honestly, I would not have known what to do or where to go without [that e-mail]. It made me feel like I actually should go in,” Parsons said. Once she decided to file a complaint, Parsons said she scheduled an appointment with the Title IX office based on the advice in the e-mail.

“[Scheduling the appointment] made me feel more like they were encouraging me to go in [to the Title IX office]…. They were reaching out, they were saying that I could,” Parsons said. “I think that that more concrete idea was good for me.”

Under a system where responsible employees aren’t required to make reports, Parsons likely wouldn’t have been connected with the Title IX office’s resources as quickly, if at all. When faced with navigating a process so daunting and complex as reporting sexual harassment, survivors often stay silent—thus it is imperative that next steps are offered to all who need them.

Off-campus harassment no longer covered

As it currently stands, survivors can file Title IX complaints through their university whether sexual harassment took place on or off campus. Even if harassment occurs at a non-school related event (e.g. an apartment party), universities must evaluate the repercussions and offer resources to those involved. This would no longer be true if DeVos’s proposal becomes law. Instead, universities will only be required to investigate explicitly campus-sanctioned events and activities. Given that 60 percent of full-time college students at public schools and 36 percent at private schools live off campus, the “not our problem” rhetoric this proposal is laced with is absurd. Do assaults happen off campus? Absolutely. Do they affect the students involved? Of course they do. The idea that universities wouldn’t be held accountable to investigate these cases is sickening.

Parsons was assaulted on campus, so this regulation wouldn’t have affected her case specifically. Nevertheless, she considered what options others would not have access to if their assault happened off campus. Not only would survivors be unable to pursue legal action, they also wouldn’t be able to use the resources given those who file Title IX complaints, such as a the ability to move attacker’s housing and change class schedules.

“I didn’t take too many resources,” Parsons said. Her attacker opted to move to a different dorm by himself, she said, and she felt comfortable asking her professors for extensions directly. “But I think had I needed them, I don’t necessarily know if I would have gotten them [without Title IX support].”

Mediation

“I am personally offended by [the idea of mediation],” Parsons said when I asked what she thought of it. Mediation “therapy,” a practice where the accuser and accused are brought together to make amends, was not allowed under Obama administration regulations because it places pressure on the victims to acquiesce. Parsons said she was illegally offered the option in high school.

“It’s one of those things where I was in a position of vulnerability, and I was talking to people who were in positions of authority,” Parsons said. “You don’t always know that you can say no to them…. Someone in a position of power says, ‘This is what’s best for you,’ you’re probably going to believe that that’s what’s best for you.”

“You know the Milgram experiments,” she continued, referring to a famous psychological study in which participants were asked to administer increasingly intense fake shocks to someone by a person in power. “People keep shocking.”

Believing the accused vs. the accuser

Over the last few years, the #MeToo movement has demonstrated how much silence still surrounds sexual harassment, in large part due to a cultural tendency to place blame on the accuser rather than the accused. Activists have stressed that in order for survivors to feel like they can come forward, it is imperative that Title IX investigations start from a point of belief. This has been met with pushback from some families of the accused, who say this creates a system devoid of due process. Parsons herself admitted that it’s a complex issue, but DeVos’s solution goes too far: Under the proposal, disciplinary councils must go into hearings believing that the accused is innocent.

“[Starting from a place of believing the accuser] doesn’t mean they automatically believe you,” Parsons said. “It’s just that they don’t automatically disbelieve you.” This is an important distinction to make; evidence is still paramount in Title IX investigations, contrary to what DeVos and her supporters seem to believe.

“I feel like when they say come in believing [the accuser], they don’t mean ‘don’t listen to the evidence,’ they mean ‘don’t ask questions that are victim-blaming,’” Parsons clarified.

In her own case, Parsons said it was a relief not to be asked things such as “Are you sure it actually happened that way?” when she was giving her statements. This type of regressive question would be more acceptable in a system that assumes from the outset that the accused is innocent, and might deter survivors from coming forward. 

“I think actually it’s one of the hardest things to do: coming forward with this stuff to a group of people who honestly probably don’t understand where you’re coming from, and may ask things that are horribly offensive,” Parsons said. “The level of fear people feel when they go into those offices—if [administrators] act like [they’re] not going to believe anyone, nobody’s going to go in there.”

Instead of assuming the accused are innocent from the outset, DeVos’s proposal should expand on replacing the single-investigator model with an alternative method of compiling evidence and influencing case outcomes. Parsons noted that most of her case was handled by a single person, which she didn’t think was fair for either party.

Cross-examination

One of the most controversial Title IX changes is the introduction of cross-examination, a process where both the accuser and the accused would be subject to questioning in a courtroom-like setting. DeVos seems to acknowledge the immense stress this would have on accusers, as the proposal includes some accommodations: Either party can answer questions through a third party, or choose to be in a separate room that’s looped in through a video feed.

Even with these accommodations, cross-examination would be a catastrophic addition to the Title IX hearing process. Schools, especially smaller ones, do not have the resources to train administrators to mediate cross-examination, nor the time to drag out investigations longer than they already are. The question of equity also arises here. Would schools foot the bill if one party could not afford a lawyer?

These many issues aside, cross-examination would also serve as an indirect means of silencing survivors, as the very prospect of cross-examination would be more than enough to turn some away.

“The process [of filing a complaint] was too much for me and I did not go all the way through with it; I was too anxious so I left,” Parsons said of her own experience. “If [cross-examining] was the standard, I would have dropped out much sooner— I don’t know if I even would have told the R.A.s and R.H.s. I probably would have just kept quiet if I knew that was going to be what happened.”

During my conversation with Parsons, I was reminded why there’s been a push to replace the word “victim” with the more resilient “survivor” in the vocabulary of sexual assault. Even without the DeVos policies in place, the process of filing a Title IX complaint is a grueling one. Parsons described searching for the well-hidden Title IX office in a parking garage; waiting in an unfamiliar, empty waiting room filled with intense anticipation; retelling her story over and over again to strangers who asked her some “weird questions.”

But even more striking was the reason Parsons decided to subject herself to the process in the first place—yes, she wanted justice for herself, but she also felt a responsibility to protect future targets. She knew her attacker was applying to be an R.A., and that he was considered “a very strong candidate” who was likely to get the position. And she didn’t want to sit idly by as other women were put at risk.

This is why DeVos’s proposed changes are so fundamentally dangerous. Narrowing the definition of sexual harassment, not requiring employees to make reports, not covering off-campus assaults, believing the innocence of the accused, implementing cross-examination—if they become the law, these changes will all limit the number of survivors who come forward to file Title IX complaints. If fewer survivors come forward, fewer cases will be investigated, fewer people will receive the resources they need, and, maybe most importantly, fewer assailants will be brought to justice.

Luckily, DeVos’s proposal is just that—a proposal. In the coming months, further drafts will be released and legal questions addressed, especially those concerning conflicts between the federal proposal and state law. It’s very much still up in the air as to what extent universities will be required to change their own individual policies, but chances are that UChicago will end up under the influence of at least some of DeVos’s suggested policies.

Although Deputy Title IX Coordinator Shea Wolfe recently said that UChicago by no means plans to overhaul their procedures, there is still reason to be vigilant. From a liability standpoint, it is inarguable that many of DeVos’s proposed changes would be to the benefit of universities, giving them the means to brush more Title IX cases under the rug. Those that are mandated by the feds may be unavoidable, but many changes are currently outlined as options that UChicago admin could elect to take (e.g. choosing what standard of evidence accusers are held to).

It is imperative, then, that we watch UChicago’s Title IX office carefully. Policy changes will be on the table in the near future, and given that UChicago has invested interest in reducing its own liability, these changes may be designed to make the process of filing a complaint less accessible to survivors. It is therefore crucial to call for administrators’ complete transparency from the outset; we have a right to know what changes to UChicago’s harassment policy are being considered before their implementation. Moreover, students with personal experience on both sides of Title IX complaints must be involved in the conversation surrounding changes to UChicago’s policy. The repercussions of these changes will not be felt personally by administrators, much less by Betsy DeVos—they will be chiefly felt by survivors, and should therefore be influenced by them too.

Maya Holt is a first-year in the College.

*Name changed to protect identity of the student.

**At UChicago, it should be noted, this transfer of information does not by any means jumpstart an investigation—once alerted of a survivor of sexual harassment, the Title IX office simply offers next steps to this person via e-mail. For access to these resources, click here.

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