When I was in high school, I was told college would be the best four years of my life. And as a closeted high school student planning on coming out as gay on my first day at Tufts University, I thought that would be the case. Instead, my four years at Tufts were defined by the most traumatic event of my life — being sexually assaulted by another male student. During those four years, I had to deal with the emotional and mental impact of being assaulted. But I also learned my rights as a sexual assault survivor under Title IX, a vital federal law that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may now be threatening to undermine.
The night after I was sexually assaulted, I didn’t know how to process what had happened. So I didn’t. For nearly a year and a half, I tried to erase memories of that night despite knowing deep down that I had been sexually assaulted. But by my junior year, I was no longer able to keep those memories locked away. I quickly developed PTSD-related symptoms, including depression, and felt unsafe walking on my own campus.
After much consideration, I decided to file a complaint through Tufts’ Sexual Misconduct Adjudication Process. The process was arduous. It took more than six months, and the person who sexually assaulted me, despite initially being found responsible for the attack, was simply put on probation and allowed to remain on campus. I appealed the decision and, thankfully, as a result my assailant was suspended for my senior year and a no contact order was put in place— an order that should have been put in place much earlier in the process.
Although the process was far from ideal, I would have had limited recourse without both Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — which became law 45 years ago this Friday — and the Department of Education’s commitment to enforcing it. Thanks to Title IX, colleges and universities are obligated to respond to sexual violence — including when the survivor is LGBTQ.
Sadly, Tufts has a long history of mishandling sexual violence. In 2008, Tufts told a student who had been sexually assaulted by another student that the university had no responsibility to address her complaint. When her grades suffered because of the trauma, Tufts forced her to leave the school. What changed in the time between her experience and when I reported my assault? It was a 2011 letter from the Department of Education to universities, outlining their obligations under Title IX to respond to sexual violence. While this was a responsibility schools always bore under Title IX, the letter explained to universities what specific actions they were expected to take to comply with the law. This letter, coupled with the advocacy of students and former students, was key to putting pressure on universities to address sexual violence.
Considering all of this, I was disturbed to hear Secretary DeVos refuse to commit to retaining the sexual assault guidance during her confirmation hearing. Rescinding this guidance would sow confusion among colleges and universities as to their responsibilities to address sexual violence.
We need a strong commitment by Secretary DeVos that she and the Department of Education will continue to vigorously investigate complaints of Title IX violations. I saw firsthand the importance of strong enforcement of Title IX. During my senior year at Tufts, the Department of Education found the university in violation of the law for its pattern of mishandling sexual assault and harassment complaints. That announcement, paired with student activism and protests, led Tufts to make several changes to their efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assaults.
While I’m sure there are still many survivors who are not able to obtain justice, the Title IX guidance and federal enforcement played an important role in equipping myself and other students to push university officials to do more to address sexual violence on campus.
Studies show that LGBTQ students face rates of sexual violence similar to or higher than those of their straight and cisgender counterparts. These student survivors need the Title IX guidance and to know that the government will take our complaints seriously. As we approach the 45th anniversary of Title IX tomorrow, I call on Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration to commit to both preserving this important guidance and vigorously enforcing the law.
If you need to speak to a sexual assault service provider in your area, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at (800) 656-4673.
JORDAN DASHOW is a policy coordinator at the Human Rights Campaign.