CW: Institutional violence, campus sexual violence
With the impending implementation of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ new Title IX regulations, students and advocates across the nation are mourning the regression of protections for students impacted by sexual violence. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 prohibits gender discrimination in education and provides formal grievance processes to students who report sex-based harassment, including sexual violence. While work around Title IX has been and continues to be sorely important, violence prevention in education should recognize and address the shortcomings of institutional action in preventing gender-based violence and supporting those impacted. DeVos’ regulations minimize the breadth of Title IX protections, but there are inherent structural shortcomings of Title IX even beyond DeVos’ recent changes.
Title IX addresses gender in education; however, race and other identities cannot be separated from gender. This pertains to those who experience violence at higher rates due to their racial and gender identity and to perpetrators of violence whose punishment is often heavily determined by their race. In both cases, Title IX formal grievance processes and corrective measures provide open terrain for schools, most of which are predominantly white, to reinforce privilege and oppression on their campuses. Violence prevention should not and cannot rely on the institutions that have and continue to oppress individuals, especially BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks who disproportionately experience sexual violence and institutional violence. Educational institutions are not exempt from this oppression; recent university-specific Instagram accounts have raised awareness around patterns of violence, inaction, oppression, and privilege perpetrated at predominantly white institutions across the country. As these accounts highlight, educational administrations and institutional procedures lead to the oppression, violation, and marginalization of many students.
These dynamics undoubtedly contribute to low rates of Title IX reporting, particularly among Black womxn and LGBTQIA+ students. Given that students of these identities experience violence at disproportionately higher rates, this is especially concerning for the mission and purpose of Title IX. With this in mind, schools must go beyond Title IX formal grievance processes and elevate other avenues of support that center students that are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)—ideally separate from educational administrations. As long as Title IX solely focuses on an avenue of support that is biased and thus under-used, Title IX will continue to uphold white supremacy and further oppression.
Vague language is another significant shortcoming of Title IX. In her regulations, DeVos requires that Title IX Coordinators, investigators, and decision-makers be trained in non-bias and impartiality, but does not provide any metric to ensure this. Similarly, DeVos requires Title IX Coordinators to implement corrective measures if a respondent is found responsible for violence, again providing no federal mechanism (beyond the option to appeal) to ensure equitable treatment of respondents of different identities. This is not just under DeVos—Title IX in its nature fails to account for deeply embedded structures of power and inequality that pervade educational institutions tasked with delivering accountability. The lack of specificity dangerously opens the doors to further oppression and privilege on account of a perpetrator’s identity. While many Title IX Coordinators are true advocates in their passion to address campus sexual violence, many also serve as or closely with educational administrators, further increasing the likelihood that Title IX decisions are swayed by the desire to protect their institution.
In violence prevention work, advocates often look to oppressive institutions to deliver justice, ensure accountability, and help disrupt the cycle of violence. An example of this is carceral feminism, or the feminist approach of responding to gender-based violence through harsher prison sentences. As Victoria Law writes in her Filter article “How Can We Reconcile Prison Abolition With #MeToo?,” the reliance on policing and prisons to address sexual and domestic violence has yielded minimal justice, both individually and systemically. As she writes, “harsher punishments and lengthier sentences have always fallen hardest upon—and devastated—people and communities of color, while providing little safety or prevention from gender violence.” This reality is made especially clear when understanding the roots of the justice system and policing in modernizing slavery and in upholding Jim Crow laws and other means of racial oppression. Relying on oppressive institutions to deliver justice upholds systems of power and oppresses BIPOC and folks of other marginalized identities. While admittedly different from carceral feminism, the focus on Title IX reporting to address campus sexual violence relies on predominantly white institutions to deliver sentiments of justice. As a result, white students disproportionately utilize this resource.
So what is the solution when the institutions tasked with delivering justice are those who perpetuate injustice? The answer is not simple, especially when advocates have historically relied on these institutions to respond to sexual violence. In elementary, secondary, and post-secondary educational institutions, a solution might include divesting from reporting processes in Title IX and investing more in resources that better respond to the needs of Black womxn and other marginalized folks. This includes a greater emphasis on confidential resources and other means of community support. Due to dynamics of university distrust and institutional violence, students are in dire need of accessible confidential resources that provide holistic support and information about resources. Furthermore, universities must invest more in community anti-violence trainings that explore the intersections of various identities in experiences with violence. Title IX corrective measures, most of which are implemented very secretly, do very little in reducing high rates of campus sexual violence. In fact, sexual violence is a community issue–making transformative systemic change more impactful than individual “accountability.” Because sexual violence is one byproduct of systemic oppression, trainings to combat these systems of power and harmful ideologies will likely help reduce rates of violence. While this process is underway, bystander intervention is critical in equipping students with the skills and knowledge to intervene in instances of violence.
Providing accessible and equitable formal grievance processes is just one mechanism to ensure educational compliance with Title IX and non-discrimination. Enhancing and redirecting Title IX funding to community support and intervention is integral in creating a more holistic and anti-racist approach to Title IX and violence prevention in education. While eradicating violence in education does not have one simple solution, it undoubtedly necessitates centering those most marginalized and critically evaluating where the power lies.