All students deserve safe and equal access to education

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Photo credit: Jenna Schulman

On July 13, Education Secretary Betsy Devos began her first steps in re-evaluating the Obama-era policies regarding sexual assault and consent on college campuses by engaging in a series of “listening sessions” for various groups impacted by Title IX and sexual assaults on campus. At issue is the so-called “Dear Colleague” letter issued in 2011 by the Obama Administration which urged institutions to better investigate and adjudicate cases of campus sexual assault. The 19-page letter set standards for universities to follow when investigating and adjudicating sexual assault charges, including using a “preponderance of the evidence” standard (rather than a “clear and convincing evidence” standard). Secretary Devos says she is now looking into whether these police are too tough and whether they deprive students who are accused of their civil rights – noting that “a system without due process ultimately serves no one in the end.”

While Secretary Devos was having her meetings inside the Department of Education, I stood on the steps of the building attending a “Survivor Speakout.” The goal of the Speakout was to highlight the reasons why Title IX’s protections are imperative in ensuring that every student can access an education that is safe and equal. Survivors, loved ones, and advocates alike stood together sharing stories about how their educations have been affected by gender-based violence. I watched as both men and women, young and old, stood together holding signs which read “ ____ needs Title IX because ____”.

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Photo credit: Jenna Schulman

I had two takeaways from the Survivor Speakout. First, Secretary Devos and others must listen to the story of survivors. We cannot go back to the days – which were not so long ago – when student complaints of sexual assaults on campus were dismissed or ignored. We cannot go back to the days when people were scared to come forward. The group Know Your IX is promoting a hashtag on Twitter – hashtag DearBetsy – asking people to post their stories about sexual assault. Before making her determination, I hope that Secretary Devos and others listen to more victims stories.

Second, Secretary Devos and her staff including Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Candice Jackson are doing victims a great disservice when they spread a narrative that many or most of assault allegations on campus are false. In an interview with the New York Times, a week before, in remarking that the investigative process on college campuses has not always been fairly balanced between the accuser and the accused, Ms. Jackson observed that “90 percent” of the accusations fall into the category of “‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.” Ms. Jackson subsequently apologized for those remarks calling them “flippant” and noting that “they poorly characterized the conversations I’ve had with countless groups of advocates.”

Nonetheless, in having this debate, people have to be careful about normalizing a notion that most accusations are false or only the result of a drunken evening. Following Ms. Jackson’s statement, the National Women’s Law Center, joined by over 50 organizations, replied with data Ms. Jackson and Secretary Devos should hear: “ In 2016, the US Department of Justice conducted a climate survey on several campuses to find that an average of 24% of transgender and gender non-conforming students, 23% of female students, and 6% of male students are sexually victimized on campus. This study replicated the findings of federal research conducted in 2007 and 2000. Additionally, a meta- analysis has shown false reports are extremely rare, constituting only 2-8% of complaints.”

Secretary Devos has not revealed her plans — but suggested that she may take action in the near future. She said: “We need to do this right, we need to protect all students and we need to do it quickly.” The current process may not be perfect. However, I hope in making her revisions Secretary Devos remembers the victims. On the steps of the Department of Education during the “Suvivor Speakout” I heard a lot of women with stories to tell. I hope she hears them too – as all students deserve to have a safe and equal access to education.

By The Advocates for Human Rights’ youth blogger Jenna Schulman.  Jenna is a high school  student in Washington, D.C. 

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Building a Culture of Consent in High School

Photo is part of the "Fraternity House" series, by artist Violet Overn, a recent New York University graduate, is a sharp reminder that one in five women are sexuall assaulted in college.
This photo, part of the “Fraternity House” series by artist Violet Overn, serves as a sharp reminder that sexual assault is prevalent on college and high school campuses.

The start of the school year and the recent conviction and sentencing of Owen Labrie to two years’ probation for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old make it particularly important to get out messages about sexual assault on campuses. In Labrie’s case, the sentence is not justice. It does not hold him accountable. It does not send a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault; and it does not serve to keep our communities – and girls – safe. As students across the country head back to school, the words of Jenna Schulman, our youth blogger, are an important reminder.

Sexual assault is not just an issue for adults or students in college, it is also an issue for teens in high school. Studies show that one in five women and one in six men are assaulted during their lifetimes. Forty four percent of these victims are less than 18 years old.

This summer, I took part in a program at my high school, Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., to investigate the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level. The object of the program was for us to learn more about the issue and then create a program in our school and for the larger community to address it.

We spent the first two weeks of the project getting educated about the issue of sexual assault and consent. We met with stakeholders based in the DC- metropolitan area, including government officials, advocates, survivors of sexual assault and social service providers. Following these meetings, I struggled to understand how such a small program, like ours, might offer any meaningful help. Initially, I looked at these traumas as if the only solution was to create policies by going through state and federal government. However, my perspective changed. The HRC advocates talked to us about how creating a culture shift, one step at a time, at the grassroots level, could help prevent sexual assaults. A culture shift would include three major components. First, it is important to develop universal definitions of what it means to give affirmative consent and what it means to be sexually harassed or assaulted.  It is important to minimize ambiguity sensibly. Second, the conversation about consent needs to be expanded and geared toward younger children. This does not mean that we should be educating our six year olds about how to have sex. Rather,  it means that we should be educating six year olds about boundaries and what it means to say yes and no. Third, we need to be much more open to believing survivors. Sexual assault is one the crimes where a survivor is too often seen as guilty until proven innocent.

We spent the second two weeks of the program trying to move from policy to action – thinking about ways to affect a culture shift in the DC high school community. As a first step, we decided to host a summit addressing sexual assault and consent for all area high schools. The summit will take place on Saturday, November 19, at Georgetown Day School.  The goal of the summit is to begin a conversation within the high school community about how to address sexual assault and how to create a consent culture. The event will have breakout sessions led by advocates, policy makers, educators, and survivors.

I feel very fortunate that my school gave students, like me, the opportunity this summer to address the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level.  I appreciated that they let us “own” the issue, and think through it ourselves. The program has changed my perspective on how I perceive sexual assault – allowing me to understand even more how it affects teenagers in high school (and not just those in college).  It also provided me with a greater sense of urgency that change has to happen and that we cannot remain complacent about the issue.

I encourage other school districts and teens from around the country to begin conversations of their own, within their schools and with friends and family about the seriousness of sexual assault and the importance generating a culture shift. It really begins with you and we can together create positive change.

By youth blogger Jenna Schulman, a tenth grade student in Washington, D.C.