Don’t rollback sexual assault guidelines

The Trump administration has signaled that it may roll back policies put in place in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Education to guide school campuses in handling reports of sexual assault and sexual violence. As a violence prevention educator for Safe Futures, a domestic violence and sexual assault agency serving southeastern Connecticut, I find this deeply troubling.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos raised the possibility of withdrawing guidelines in a press conference July 13. It followed her meeting with sexual violence survivors’ groups, educational institutions, and “men’s rights” groups, including the National Coalition for Men.

Candice Jackson, a civil rights official working for DeVos, has stated her belief that the rights of people accused of sexual assault have gone largely ignored under the guidelines issued during President Obama’s first term.

These are the facts. A 2016 Bureau of Justice study of college students found that 34 percent of women and 11 percent of men report being assaulted either on or off campus. The same study found that of rapes occurring on campus, only 7 percent were reported to a school official, and only 4 percent were reported to law enforcement.

The reasons survivors of sexual violence choose not to report are numerous and varied: fear of not being believed; concern about retaliation from the assailant or their friends; shame; a desire not to get anyone into trouble.

Some of these reasons are valid. Often, survivors are blamed for the sexual violence they experienced. With so many real hurdles to reporting at play, rescinding the Department of Education’s guidance will set our nation dangerously backwards. We should be doing everything we can to raise the reporting rate above 7 percent, not eliminating the guidelines, a move that might discourage more survivors from reporting.

It is important to note who will be most affected if DeVos walks back this guidance. Half of all transgender people will experience sexual violence during their lifetimes. LGBTQ students experience higher rates of sexual assault than their straight peers and report less confidence in school officials to respond in a way that is helpful (Bureau of Justice, 2016). Students with disabilities are sexually assaulted at twice the rate of students without disabilities.

Sexual assault rates are also higher among people of color. Native Americans are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as all other races (National Institute of Justice, 2016). Black students of all genders are more likely to experience sexual violence than their white peers. Any action DeVos takes that harms survivors of sexual violence will disproportionately harm people from marginalized communities.

I teach local middle and high school students about consent and sexual violence. Nearly every time I teach a lesson, a student discloses to me that she or he personally, or someone known to them, have experienced unwanted sexual touching of their body. The person who touched them is someone they go to school with, or a friend, or a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a family member. When I ask if they told anyone about it, I’m usually met with a shrug, and something along the lines of: “I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.”

This is happening right now, not just on college campuses, but in middle schools and high schools. It’s happening to young people we all care about. They need more support, not less.

At Safe Futures, we support survivors. We respect their decisions about whether to report sexual violence to the police. We offer free, confidential counseling in our offices at 16 Jay Street in New London and 241 Main Street in Norwich. We have a hotline specifically for survivors of sexual violence: 860-701-6001. We also provide comprehensive services for survivors of domestic violence and teen dating violence.

We implore Secretary DeVos to commit to protecting students who have experienced sexual violence by keeping President Obama’s guidance in place.

In the meantime, and regardless of DeVos’s decision: Safe Futures is here for survivors. We believe you.

Kelsey Alexander is the violence prevention educator and coordinator of Middle and High School programs for Safe Futures.

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