07:23, August 01 60 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-01 07:23:03
How will survivors of campus sexual assault fare under Trump's new order?

When Darbi Goodwin reported her rape by a high school classmate in 2014, school officials told her: “There’s nothing we can do for you,” the 18-year-old recalled in an interview with the Guardian. Of her alleged rapist, she said they added: “We know him and he would never do something like that.”

If Trump’s education department follows through with its rollbacks of Obama-era sexual assault protections, more students may hear the same. The White House’s planned cuts will hamstring the monitoring and investigation of complaints such as Goodwin’s, as the capacity to coordinate across incidents “will be greatly diminished”, according to budget documents for fiscal year 2018.

A 2017 graduate of Pennridge High School in Pennsylvania, Goodwin is the plaintiff in a sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by the National Women’s Law Center on her behalf. Goodwin alleges she was raped by a classmate in the parking lot of a local restaurant on 17 December 2014, when she was 15.

After she reported the incident, authorities did nothing to protect her from ongoing intimidation at school, according to the complaint the Law Center filed against the school district and two of her high school administrators in May.

“They don’t understand how to deal with it and they don’t want to deal with it,” Goodwin said of school authorities. “I was making everyone’s lives more difficult because I came forward and was talking about something so taboo.”

Conversations with her classmates went worse. “I was asked a lot if it was a rape or a ‘rape rape’?” she said. “I stopped talking to pretty much everyone.”

School superintendent Jacqueline A Rattigan declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Some see a pattern in administrators’ sweeping sexual harassment under the rug. Goodwin’s is not the first suit filed by the Law Center against Pennridge School District this year – in January, Modupe Williams contended the school did nothing about an onslaught of racial and sexual slurs she reported to them.

Such recurrence underscores why systemic investigations are essential to understanding the full context of the campus sexual assault problem, according to Law Center attorney Alexandra Brodsky, who represents several women taking action against the district.

“We’ve heard from Pennridge alumni who graduated decades ago that the school treated them just like they treated Darbi and our other clients,” she said, adding that if the education department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigated students’ mistreatment as isolated incidents, the agency would miss the larger problem.

That, however, is precisely what Trump’s education department is poised to do, as part of an ongoing attack on protections for campus sexual assault survivors.

In department budget documents this spring, the administration acknowledged that newly proposed cuts to OCR would hamper the office, reducing staff there by more than 40 employees.

“OCR must make difficult choices,” the budget document says. “OCR’s enforcement staff will be limited in conducting onsite investigations and monitoring, and OCR’s ability to achieve greater coordination and communication regarding core activities will be greatly diminished.”

And last month, an internal memo obtained by ProPublica revealed plans to loosen existing requirements on investigations into civil rights complaints, including ones for campus sexual assault survivors.

Under Obama-era protections, such complaints would typically prompt broader questioning into whether the incidents fit a larger pattern of discrimination or mistreatment. Now the department will seek to determine patterns “only” if systemic concerns are clearly apparent or if it is called for explicitly by the investigative team. Specifically, civil rights investigators will no longer be asked to seek three years’ worth of complaint data from schools or school districts in question, as they had previously, to ascertain they are operating within civil rights law.

Federal officials cast the change as a move toward efficiency. The press secretary for the department, which was contacted for comment for this story, told ProPublica at the time the memo surfaced: “Enforcement instructions seek to clear out the backlog while giving every complaint the individualized and thorough consideration it deserves.”

But critics fear it will narrow the office’s mission and kick responsibility to regional offices.

In July, the department’s top official tasked with enforcing campus sexual assault laws – including Title IX protections, which govern sex discrimination at educational entities receiving federal funding – expressed her skepticism about the vast majority of victims’ claims.

“The accusations – 90% of them – 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’,” Candice Jackson, head of the department’s civil rights office, told the New York Times.

The backlash to the comments was fierce, leading civil rights groups and even some Democratic members of Congress to call for her resignation.

Another recent high school graduate, whose lawsuit is still pending, told the Guardian that Jackson’s statement was offensive. “A lot of people put the blame on the victim and I think people need to know that it’s not like that most of the time,” said the woman, whose name is being withheld until her lawsuit is filed.

“It can happen to anyone and it can be the closest person to you that can hurt you,” said the woman, who contends administrators did nothing after she was assaulted by her high school boyfriend.

“We are deeply worried that the department will base policy on rape myths like those Candice Jackson perpetuated in her recent remarks,” said Brodsky, who represents many such clients in her work for the National Women’s Law Center.

The day after Jackson’s remarks, Education Secretary Betsy Devos met with sexual assault accusers, including Goodwin and campus administrators. She also met with people claiming they have been wrongfully accused of sexual assault, as well as the National Coalition for Men, a men’s rights group that alleges domestic violence is over-reported (Jess Davidson, managing director of End Rape On Campus, recently described it as a “hate group”).

Despite the invitation, Goodwin felt her story “meant nothing” in light of Jackson’s comments. “They think that 90% of sexual assault is just kind of a joke,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking and really aggravating that someone in that kind of position could have that view of something so serious.”

That Jackson later apologized and is herself a survivor of rape did not mollify critics such as Mahroh Jahangiri, project manager of Know Your IX, who wrote in Vox: “Rape isn’t just a crime – it is a civil rights issue that affects the ability of young people to learn.”

Meanwhile, Goodwin is making sure her story gets heard, even if she feels the administration isn’t listening.

“I want people to know this was what happened and it wasn’t okay,” she said. “I want the boys to know I’m not – well, I’m afraid of them – but I’m not afraid to speak up anymore and make them look bad.”