If DeVos’ Title IX Regulations Go into Effect on August 14, My Story Could Become the Norm — at UC and Other Schools

DeVos’ rules roll back survivors’ rights, make schools less safe for all students and allow educational institutions to ignore sexual harassment and assaults that happen off-campus.

click to enlarge Grace Cunningham - Photo: Aurore Fournier for Women of Cincy
Photo: Aurore Fournier for Women of Cincy
Grace Cunningham

Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments Act of 1972 states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." 

In the middle of a global pandemic, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released her final regulations on Title IX, a civil rights statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education and requires schools to act when sexual violence impacts a survivor’s access to education. DeVos’ rules roll back survivors’ rights, make school less safe for all students and allow schools to ignore sexual harassment and assault. If my experience at the University of Cincinnati (UC) taught me anything, it's that educational institutions will use DeVos’ Title IX rule to further harm survivors and sweep sexual violence under the rug.

I was raped and robbed in my off-campus apartment when I was a sophomore in November of 2015. When I reported this to UC's Title IX Coordinator, the office declined to investigate or issue protective measures to prevent my rapist from harassing me on campus because he was no longer enrolled in classes. But my rapist was still regularly on campus practicing in the university’s athletic spaces, which forced me to live the next few years looking over my shoulder out of fear of running into him. My sense of security and sense of self were gone.

The following semester I was enrolled full-time, working two jobs and navigating the criminal legal system. During the proceedings, my rapist’s lawyer argued that his UC athletic scholarship was waiting for him in the fall. Out of continued fear for my safety, I contacted the Title IX Coordinator because I still did not feel safe while my rapist was on campus. Again they claimed they could take no proactive action to stop him from coming to campus unless he enrolled in classes. Ironically, UC passed a Tobacco Free Policy, which banned visitors who smoked on the campus grounds from returning — in short, UC could ban someone from campus for smoking a cigarette, but could not for raping their students.

For nearly three years, UC refused to take action to keep me safe from my rapist. I regularly saw him when attending classes, causing me to have panic attacks, flashbacks and nightmares to the point I saw no other option but to drop out of school. I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and struggled to sleep, eat and function. I avoided in-person class, fell behind in coursework, dropped classes, took an incomplete in one class and ultimately prolonged my graduation. But as much as I wanted to drop out, it presented more obstacles. In order to continue therapy and to receive my scholarship, I had to be enrolled.

Because UC refused to take action to keep me safe, I spent a majority of my college years restructuring my life to avoid my rapist. I took online classes whenever possible, took classes at Cincinnati State and avoided campus at all costs, forcing me to miss out on in-class lectures and discussions, educational workshops, a research opportunity and quality time learning among my peers.

If DeVos’ Title IX rules go into effect on August 14, my story could become the norm. 

Under DeVos’ rules, the University of Cincinnati would be required to “dismiss” my initial report under Title IX, solely because it occurred off-campus. Only about 8% of all sexual assaults involving middle school, high school, and college students occur on school property. DeVos’ rules require schools to “respond when sexual harassment occurs in the school’s education program or activity." This means schools will be required to dismiss around 92% of all reports of assault under Title IX, ultimately disregarding the very real on-campus impact survivors — like me — face from violence that occurs off-campus. Title IX is meant to ensure survivors’ can pursue their education free from sex discrimination. But DeVos’ rule will effectively strip students of that right based on where the violence occurred, not on the impact it has on their education.

Here’s the good news: Schools can create their own sexual misconduct policies outside of Title IX that address violence that occurs outside of a school program or activity. Students, survivors and our advocates at UC have called on the school to create policies that go beyond DeVos’ rule and protect all survivors’ access to education. But as of today, UC has failed to meet our demands. UC has ignored survivors’ questions, refused to be transparent about what changes they will be making to their policies and has been making decisions that will affect the safety of all students behind closed doors.  

UC must commit to policies that ensure all survivors’ abilities to pursue their education free from discrimination. Join me in demanding that the University of Cincinnati uphold survivors’ rights by taking action here and calling on UC admin to support the safety of all survivors. Because the cost of an education should never include sexual violence. 

National Resource: RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 and provides free, confidential services to survivors and their loved ones.  Call 1-800-656-4673 or chat online here.

Local Resource: Women Helping Women (WHW) provides free, confidential services to all survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. If you are in need of support, please call or text WHW’s 24-Hour Hotline at 513-581-5610.

Grace Cunningham is a ‘18 UC Alumna, survivor of rape, and the founder of Students for Survivors after experiencing a life-altering trauma and institutional betrayal her sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati. Students for Survivors is "a student-led movement at the University of Cincinnati dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual assault regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, or ability," and is currently calling for the university to maintain policies and procedures that ensure survivors' civil rights are upheld.

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