This past November, Secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, proposed changes that would significantly limit Title IX, the 1972 civil rights act that made it unlawful to discriminate against students “on the basis of sex.” These proposed changes would strip away many of the protections against sexual violence that students currently have under Title IX. REACH’s Executive Director, Laura Van Zandt, submitted the comment below on the proposed changes:
To Whom It May Concern,
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance. I am a parent of two school-aged children – boy and girl – and I am the Executive Director of REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, Inc. Founded in 1981, REACH has grown into a multiservice organization serving 7,000 people each year in 27 communities north and west of Boston.
I am submitting comments on behalf of REACH Beyond Domestic Violence. Our 25 full and 10 part time staff work with survivors of domestic violence to foster safety and support while engaging communities to promote healthy relationships. All of us are concerned about the proposed changes from the Department of Education. We see these changes as impacting definition, location, examination and representation – thus exacerbating marginalization of survivors.
REACH works in schools, with businesses, in kitchens and family rooms, with faith communities and with survivors, families, friends, and colleagues. We know that domestic and dating violence is not always physical and blatant. It is a pattern of behavior – sometimes subtle and hard to define – that is used systematically and with intention to gain and maintain power and control over another person. It is a cumulative process, and the impact over time – which can be invisible to others – is to make a survivor’s world smaller. Abuse – harassment, assault, intimidation – can certainly impact someone’s ability to perform in a classroom or workplace, on a court or stage, therefore interrupting their effort to get an education. To introduce an “objective” standard ignores the fact that most abusive behavior occurs in intimate settings, out of sight of others. Harassment, assault, and abuse are what one person perpetrates and another experiences. It is the experience of the victim – their feelings, not someone else’s – that matter here. Saying no – or that’s enough – should be everyone’s right, not an objective party’s determination.
The proposed changes limit protections to only what happens on campus which is unrealistic and arbitrary given that many schools expect students to live off campus, use off campus spaces and engage in community activities. Why should one student’s ability to get an education be interrupted and the student who perpetrates violence, harassment, or abuse is allowed to continue? The current rules are intended to protect students from discrimination in getting their education. Not just in certain spaces.
The proposed rules open up the process to include examination of the survivor which insinuates that their mental health, decision making, sexual history, or attire might somehow justify the perpetrator’s actions, and shift responsibility for the assault or harassment the survivor endured. The focus must remain on the behavior and choices made by perpetrators.
A devastating power imbalance is perpetuated if a survivor is subjected to a hearing where the perpetrator has representation and the survivors does not. The accused may be able to afford representation when the victim does not have access to resources – due to their economic situation or perhaps due to an inability to draw on those resources. Without representation, they will again be subjected to attacks without the ability to fight back or stop the attack. Privilege once again gets the upper hand – and that is unacceptable.
All of these changes exacerbate the marginalization of survivors. These changes tell survivors that they are not important. At a time when people at the margins – women, immigrants, non-gender conforming folks, transgender folks, poor people and people of color – are being pushed further and further from power, these changes send a strong signal that those with privilege can do whatever they want and not be held accountable. Our voices matter. We are saying loudly that sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, stalking and rape must end. And when these acts are perpetrated, the perpetrator must be held accountable. Even at school? Especially at school. Students must LEARN that these acts and behaviors are NOT acceptable and that there will be consequences. Just as there are for the students against whom these acts are perpetrated.