Update: On April 6, 2021, the Department of Education announced that its next steps are to hold a public hearing about sexual harassment and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation with students, educators and other stakeholders and to issue a new question-and-answer document about the Trump rule. The Department also anticipates publishing a new proposed Title IX sexual harassment rule.
Last fall, during my second year of law school, I heard a story far too familiar. A first-year student explained to a group of students how difficult their first weeks of the semester had been because they had been repeatedly forced to encounter their abuser at school. Although they reported the abuse to our law school, professors and school administrators provided little help. I had personally dealt with a similar situation in college, but I was offered accommodations unavailable to many graduate students.
Accommodations are part of a required school response under Title IX when a student reports sexual harassment to a school official. Also known as “supportive measures” or “interim measures,” accommodations may include changing a reported harasser’s classes or housing, or providing mental health services and academic adjustments to a survivor. In online classrooms, accommodations can look like virtual access to mental health services and separation from online spaces a survivor may share with their harasser.
Accommodations are critical to student survivors. For me, accommodations were the only thing that made my continued enrollment in college possible.
Unfortunately, universities are often more adept at providing accommodations to undergraduate students than to graduate students. Since graduate schools usually have smaller cohorts and fewer sections than undergraduate programs, many graduate schools believe there is nothing they can do to protect a student survivor from their harasser or abuser. Stories of sexual harassment and abuse in graduate school, like the one I heard from my law school classmate, are all too common. However, they aren’t included in the narrative about campus sexual assault or part of the conversation around the accommodations needed to protect survivors’ equal access to education.
Many other factors made it even harder for my law school classmate to get the accommodations they needed. First, the Trump administration’s Title IX rule, which took effect in August 2020, restricted schools’ ability to provide a full range of accommodations for student survivors. Second, the rule took effect in the middle of a global pandemic, as schools struggled to adapt to online learning. Finally, schools in the Deep South face structural barriers to granting students accommodations, such as difficulties with providing internet access in rural areas and recovering from the ice storm in February that devastated power and water systems. The needs of students in the Deep South are often overlooked, which leaves survivors like my law school classmate left out of a very necessary conversation.
President Biden took an important first step in addressing campus sexual assault when he ordered the Department of Education to review all existing Title IX policies within 100 days and “consider” rescinding the Trump Title IX rule. These are important first steps, but much more needs to be done.
The time to recognize graduate student survivors’ needs is now. More than 100 survivor advocate organizations have called on the Biden administration to strengthen Title IX enforcement, including by “specify[ing] a wide range of supportive measures” and “addressing related issues that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Nearly 300 students and survivors have also called on the administration to propose a new Title IX sexual harassment rule by April 1, 2021; to conduct a nationwide listening tour to incorporate the real-life experiences of survivors in new rulemaking; and, while rulemaking is pending, to clarify how schools should provide “accommodations and supportive measures… especially in light of COVID-19.”
The reality is that all student survivors are at risk because of the current Title IX rule and the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19. Graduate students face even more challenges due to small class sizes and limited infrastructure. This must change. The time to make learning safe for all students is now, and the Biden administration must act quickly to ensure student safety.