In An Era Of Trump And DeVos, Northeastern Is Failing Sexual Assault Survivors

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Martha Durkee-Neuman is the Outreach Coordinator for the Sexual Assault Response Coalition.

The President of the United States of America is a sexual predator. During his campaign, a now-infamous tape leaked of Donald Trump boasting about assaulting women. He subsequently dismissed the comments as casual “locker room banter.”[1] The scandal and the nineteen women who have accused him of sexual assault contributed to national discussions about the prevalence of harassment across the country, especially on college campuses.[2] Now a man who doesn’t understand consent is President, and the conversation must turn to what’s next. While there remains much to witness, his choice for Secretary of Education speaks volumes about the direction the administration is taking.

The appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary for Education proves that Trump’s administration will not stand up for the rights of survivors of sexual assault. As a donor and lobbyist, DeVos has financially supported the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that speaks out for students’ and professors’ rights to free speech and, among other services, has provided legal assistance to and advocated for the rights of perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses.[3] During her confirmation hearing, DeVos was asked by Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA) whether she would uphold the 2011 guidance on Title IX, which requires colleges and universities to actively work to prevent and appropriately respond to sexual assault on campuses. She refused to answer; she said, “it would be premature to do so today.[4][5]

Title IX, though created in 1972, was fundamentally changed by the Dear Colleague Letter, circulated in 2011 by the Department of Education, which mandated universities to evaluate sexual assault cases based on the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, as opposed to the “clear and convincing evidence” standard that had previously been in place.[6][7] The latter standard tends to favor students accused of sexual violence over survivors. Though Northeastern University utilized the latter until the Dear Colleague Letter, the school now operates on a “preponderance of evidence” standard. This standard means that an accused party can be found guilty if the jury believes that there is a 51% chance the accusations are true.[8]

The letter also mandated that universities conduct campus climate surveys of how students experience, witness, and perceive sexual assault on campus and fairly and accurately publicize the results; Northeastern is currently under fire for failing to do so.[9]

Student organizers, administrators, and community advocates rely heavily on Title IX policies and funding. An attack on this guidance will have an enormous effect on students and survivors at Northeastern. And across the country, the power of campus organizers speaking out for their rights, safety, and autonomy is growing despite significant challenges and institutional barriers such as the active silencing of dissent, legislation that attacks survivor safety, and others. Students are rising up against Trump and DeVos and the threats they pose to Title IX.[10][11]

The Sexual Assault Response Coalition (SARC) at Northeastern was formed in 2014 as a campaign to support survivors at a university that seeks to silence them. The first campaign centered on a proposal to establish a gender resource center on campus a space to connect students to resources, hold meetings and events, and provide confidential support to survivors of sexual violence. SARC drafted a referendum, collected signatures, presented the proposal to the Student Government Association, and the student body voted. The referendum passed with 89% support in the Spring of 2015.

The coalition then entered a year of frustrating and drawn out negotiations with the administration in which student organizers who pushed to be included in the process of forming, planning, and establishing the proposed gender resource center were repeatedly dismissed. Emails requesting meetings were ignored or delayed, and when they did happen, student organizers were silenced and disrespected.

Finally, in the Spring of 2016, the university announced the opening of the ViSION Resource Center to house Northeastern’s Violence Support, Intervention, and Outreach Network (ViSION). Despite aforementioned efforts, SARC was not consulted or respected in the process of developing the center. SARC leaders were not even informed of the Center’s opening until the day of.

Actively excluding student voices in the planning means that the center does not address student concerns. These include the need for confidential resources, staff for the center that are not responsible employees/mandated reporters, or a peer-to-peer help hotline for student survivors. SARC is continuing its demand for a space that respects and responds to voiced needs of survivors and allies.

The formation of the ViSION Resource Center embodies and exemplifies Northeastern’s paternalistic attitude toward addressing students’ needs. As a coalition of student survivors and allies, SARC understands the needs of the survivors in its community through consciousness-raising and story-sharing. Many students who report assaults at Northeastern are re-victimized by the reporting process, re-marginalized through being denied autonomy over decision-making, and re-traumatized by a non-student-centric justice system.

However, Northeastern chose to ignore survivors’ advocacy and center the administration’s priorities of marketing student resources and having a positively-perceived façade. It is the university’s image and reputation that are served by the ViSION Resource Center, not student survivors. This center fits into patterns of Northeastern co-opting student advocacy, branding it with an NU flair, and reproducing it in a way that reflects the university’s agenda.

Current campaigns of the SARC coalition include advocating for an increase in confidential resources for students on campus, promoting visibility around mandated reporting, fairly analyzing and publicizing the results of campus climate surveys, and working with the Student Government Association to reform the Student Conduct Board so students are not deciding the legitimacy of sexual assault cases and determining punishment for perpetrators at Northeastern. The coalition is also working to advocate for the specific needs of survivors who are also people of color, queer folk, international students, immigrants, differently-abled, and neurodivergent, whose rights are specifically targeted and denied at Northeastern.

This is an especially poignant time for this work due both to the context of aforementioned political threats and the current Title IX lawsuit filed by fourth-year Morgan Helfman for the mishandling of her 2013 sexual assault case.[12] Northeastern, as well as five individual administrators, is being sued for counts of negligence, breach of contract, violation of Title IX, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, violation of the state equal rights act, and misrepresentation of crime statistics by the school.

This is not the first time allegations of this nature have been incurred against Northeastern. Katherine Rizzo filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in 2011 for the inappropriate and unethical way that her sexual assault case was handled by Northeastern.[13] University administrators first actively discouraged Rizzo from reporting or seeking action. University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS) refused to help. After the assailant was found guilty, he successfully appealed to the university that the “level of consent” the committee used to accuse him was “too high.”[14] He transferred to another school without penalty or follow-through.

Students were in solidarity with Rizzo during her proceedings and are in solidarity with Helfman today, demonstrating their support for the past several months. When Helfman first filed suit, SARC engaged in supportive dialogue with the community to build consciousness around the nature and character of sexual assault at Northeastern. The coalition hosted a community gathering in which students aired grievances and experiences.

SARC also participated in a direct action to drop a banner on campus reading “Students Stand With Survivors,” and another banner was later dropped reading “Northeastern Protects Rapists.” The administration quickly removed both banners and threatened the students with vague disciplinary action. “It’s disappointing that the university wouldn’t allow us our right to free speech,” said SARC President Roxanne Anderson, a senior human services major. “Northeastern’s rules on free speech are limiting and arbitrary, evident of a kind of maniacal control over students.”[15]

Later, Northeastern cited a rule that states no banners may be hung on campus without permission, despite the fact that this rule has never been enforced before to remove Patriots flags or state or national flags. “Basically, I was intimidated to take it down,” said Mackenzie Coleman, the student who hung the second banner.[16]

SARC published a list of demands in November detailing what students expect from the university, including an expansion of confidential counseling and mental health services for students, a change in the ViSION Resource Center to be a confidential space, and a release of the raw data from the campus climate survey, rather than the misleading positive interpretations that have been released by the Office for Student Affairs. The administration has been silent both on SARC’s demands and on Helfman’s case, refusing to address these considerations and neglecting to make a statement on these issues.

SARC’s visibility and power is growing. This semester student engagement, participation, and interest in the campaign are at an all time high. Students are resisting the policies and procedures of the university, coming together in resilience and courage, with the knowledge that unity is even more important given the current regime. All around the country, students are in action; conversations driven by the women’s marches in cities across the U.S. and the world are bringing women’s issues to the table.

Whether women are marching or growing local campaigns, this movement is being led by intersectional, millennial feminists who understand that the conversation around sexual assault is incomplete without talking about how it affects black, brown, queer, non-binary, trans, and immigrant lives. The conversation is incomplete without discussion of male survivors of sexual assault and how to break down toxic masculinity in the fight to end gendered violence. This work is valuable through coalition-building and a willingness to work across difference.

This is a terrifying time, both on college campuses and around the country, to be a survivor of sexual assault under the current administration. But there is hope. Power is building among students, not just on Northeastern’s campus, but in campuses across the country. Organizers are advocating for the rights to safety, health, and autonomy, resisting the tides that seek to normalize sexual assault and devalue survivor experiences. Together, with the power of community and resistance, millennials are building a grassroots movement. And if Betsy DeVos revokes Title IX funding, students will stand up and fight back.

Sources

[1] Fahrenthold, David A. “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.” The Washington Post. October 8, 2016.
[2] Kurtzleben, Danielle. “1 More Woman Accuses Trump Of Inappropriate Sexual Conduct. Here’s The Full List” NPR. October 20, 2016.
[3] Wermund, Benjamin. “DeVos’ donations spark questions about her stance on campus sexual assault.” Politico. January 9, 2017.
[4] “Dear Colleague Letter.” US Department of Education. April 4, 2011.
[5] Anderson, Nick.  “Under DeVos, Education Department likely to make significant shift on sexual assault” The Washington Post. January 18, 2017.
[6] “Dear Colleague Letter.” US Department of Education. April 4, 2011.
[7] Cauterucci, Christina. “What Will Happen to Title IX Under Trump?” Slate. February 2, 2017.
[8] Kingkade, Tyler. “Law Professors Defend Use Of Preponderance Standard In Campus Rape Cases” The Huffington Post. August 7, 2017.
[9] Walrath, Rowan and Morford, Rachel. “Student files lawsuit against Northeastern University.” The Huntington News. November 1st, 2016.
[10] Kane, Laura. “University of Victoria silencing sexual assault victims, students say.” The Globe and Mail. March 15, 2016.
[11] Cook, Rhonda. “Opposed by sex assault victims, campus rape bill clears Ga. House panel.” The Atlanta Journal Constitution. February 1, 2017.
[12] Krantz, Laura. “Northeastern student sues over 2013 sexual assault.” The Boston Globe. November 3rd, 2016.
[13] Baker, Katie JM. “Alleged Rapist At Northeastern University Transfers Without Penalties.” Buzzfeed. May 7th, 2014.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Meyer, Logan. “SARC banner in solidarity with survivors taken down.” The Huntington News. November 10, 2016.
[16] Grewal, Ryan. “Student removes banner criticizing NU’s handling of sexual assaults.” The Huntington News. November 10, 2016.

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