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50 years since Title IX was enacted, survivors of sexual assault say the law failed to protect them

Yoonji Han   

50 years since Title IX was enacted, survivors of sexual assault say the law failed to protect them
  • Title IX was enacted on June 23, 1972 to protect students from sex-based discrimination.
  • Survivors of color told Insider they faced bias and heightened barriers when reporting sexual assault.

When Anissa Cartagena was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at Delaware State University in 2019, she initially did not want to report the incident to the school.

Cartagena said she was "extremely afraid" of Title IX and the police since she was drunk at the time and DSU is a dry campus. On top of that, Cartagena, who is half-Black and half-Hispanic, said she knew the odds were stacked against her.

"From a young age, I was told that if I were to go missing, no one would look for me, that no police officer or detective would help me. Girls like me, we don't get to be victims. We don't get justice," Cartagena told Insider.

A resident advisor found out about the assault from a friend, and, as a mandatory reporter, reported the incident to the school despite Cartagena's objections. DSU's Title IX office contacted Cartagena a few days later, and she admitted her rape to the officials.

Title IX, a federal law enacted on June 23, 1972, requires institutions to protect all students, faculty, and staff from sex-based discrimination. Beginning in the 1980s, in response to student and faculty pressure, Title IX was expanded to include sexual misconduct. Prior to that, schools weren't required to investigate reports of sexual harassment.

Survivors of color, like Cartagena, are especially overlooked as victims of sexual violence, and may face implicit or explicit bias during the Title IX process. Fifty years after Title IX was enacted, Insider spoke with survivors and experts about how a law intended to safeguard marginalized gender identities has failed to protect those who are doubly vulnerable due to their race and ethnicity.

"These types of laws tend to under-serve folks of marginalized genders and races, so women of color often suffer double or amplified harm," Tamara Lee, a professor and labor lawyer who teaches identity politics in the workplace at Rutgers University, told Insider. "There's a sexualization of racial harassment and a racialization of sexual harassment, but the laws are only built to remedy one of those things."

Who gets to be a victim?

While it's up to schools to establish Title IX reporting procedures, students typically must contact their school's Title IX investigation office and meet with an investigator, who will decide whether or not to open an investigation. In the weeks or months that follow, the investigator will collect evidence and interview the complainant, respondent, and witnesses, then issue a written decision or announce the decision at a hearing.

The burden of proof during this process heavily rests on survivors, who must provide airtight statements, answer probing questions, and show incontrovertible evidence during months-long investigations. And changes to Title IX regulations under former president Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — which narrowed the definition of sexual misconduct, permitted cross-examination of students who file reports, and required a presumption of innocence for the accused — have made allegations of sexual assault even more difficult to prove, which many critics said eroded protections for survivors.

On June 23, 2022, the Biden administration announced proposed changes to Title IX that would "provide full protection from sex-based harassment."

Stricter Title IX rules disproportionately affect female students of color: Up to 45% of student survivors who reported sexual assault were women of color, even though they represent just 20% of students enrolled in college and university programs, a 2019 study of 42 campus sexual assault cases found.

Many survivors of color feel they face higher barriers when proving allegations of sexual assault. Women told Insider they were asked accusatory questions, including, "What were you wearing that night?" and "Did you do more than turn your head to resist him?" Experts and survivors say these questions not only re-traumatize survivors of sexual violence, but also paint a restricted picture of how a victim should or shouldn't look like or behave.

"The perfect victim is meek and mild-mannered, kind, blonde, skinny, frail, and white. It's the image of a perfect victim who needs to be protected," Sydney Brun-Ozuna, a Hispanic student who was sexually assaulted when she was a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2017, told Insider. "The more you stray from that image, the less they think you need protection and the less people will fight to protect you."

Cartagena echoed the same feeling, saying that as "a Black woman on the thicker side, if you were going to put me in front of a jury, they probably wouldn't see me as helpless."

If it weren't for screenshots of messages her assailant sent her as he continued his harassment over social media, as well as slip-ups he made in his statements, Cartagena said she doubts her perpetrator would've been found responsible.

Survivors of color are less likely to report sexual violence

Incidents of sexual misconduct are vastly underreported: A study by The Association of American Universities found that 28% or less of even the most serious incidents are reported. There are a multitude of reasons why survivors said they hesitated to report sexual assault, including a convoluted and unclear Title IX process, a fear of retaliation, and a mistrust of institutions and law enforcement.

"Particularly for Black survivors, who are less likely to be believed, there are deep and real concerns when they have contact with the criminal justice system," Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center, told Insider. "Some have had experiences of reporting serious acts of violence and then find themselves under investigation."

Cartagena was put in this very situation several months after her Title IX case. Her assailant cross-filed against her in 2020, accusing her of sexual assault. In his statement, her perpetrator wrote that she was, "big and Black and ugly, and there's no way a person like him would rape a person like me," according to Cartagena.

Though the school eventually dropped the cross-filing, Cartagena had to endure two months of an investigation that exposed her to scathing accusations and racist comments by her perpetrator and his supporters.

Some survivors of color have also felt uncomfortable reporting their perpetrators because they themselves are international students or students from marginalized communities. Miranda Melson, who was raped by a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2016, said she was worried her assailant would be deported to his home country if she spoke up — even if it didn't excuse his actions.

"I sympathized with that as a person of color," Melson said.

Cartagena was explicitly told by her Title IX coordinator that if she didn't want to ruin the life of her assailant, who was from a marginalized community, she could just let it go.

"I felt so hurt and distraught because I remember thinking, what about my life? There was the notion that I didn't matter," Cartagena said.

Survivors also said that a lack of diversity in Title IX offices further exacerbated their feelings of being alone and misunderstood.

"The people who were investigating me, the person I reported to, my victim advocate — they were all white. It contributes to an indescribable but lingering feeling that no one quite understands your experience, or, more importantly, sees what happens the way you see it," Brun-Ozuna said.

Schools' failures to address survivors' needs can have lasting impacts

Brun-Ozuna's Title IX case fell through. Even though her perpetrator had tried to take back his original statement — which she thought would undermine his credibility — the Title IX investigators told Brun-Ozuna that inconsistencies in her account, like the number of times she reported that her perpetrator kissed her and the time of day they met, made her uncredible.

"That was when I truly realized how much the system was designed not to help me," Brun-Ozuna said. "The rules they had given were so different for me versus than for him, because it was so much easier for the university to say it hadn't happened."

Brun-Ozuna appealed the decision and also filed a lawsuit against the university two years later, but her claim was dismissed.

Schools' failure to adequately respond to allegations can have long-lasting impacts on survivors: 39% of survivors experienced a substantial disruption in their educations, including taking a leave of absence, transferring schools, or dropping out of school entirely, a Know Your IX survey of more than 100 student survivors who formally reported sexual violence found.

During the weeks of investigation, Melson struggled to keep up with classes. When the University of Nebraska-Lincoln dropped her case, concluding that her assailant did not violate any policies and that "the greater weight of the evidence shows the parties engaged in consensual sexual activity," Melson said she almost felt worse than she did before.

Melson's findings letter not only included inaccurate details, but also used language that made her feel like she was being blamed for the rape. "After the parties left the downtown area, Respondent suggested going back to his apartment. You agreed," the letter stated.

Melson decided not to appeal the decision because she lost trust in the Title IX office.

Cartagena's perpetrator still continues to send messages to her, her family, and organizations she was part of. She was told by a member of Delaware State's Title IX office she should transfer schools if she truly feared for her life.

"When I heard that, I felt my soul shatter in pieces. Why did I have to leave? I worked too hard to get into this school, to get these scholarships, but the school refused to understand," she said.

A better Title IX system must include race and survivors' perspectives, experts say

Title IX can be an effective tool to ensure equal access to education, and experts and survivors say it's on schools to create systems that enable students to feel safe and comfortable coming forward with allegations of sexual assault.

Survivors stressed the importance of transparency around a school's Title IX office, including data about the number of cases and their outcomes, which would ensure colleges and investigators are held accountable.

In order to protect girls who are experiencing amplified oppression because of the way their race and gender intersect, policymakers should consider laws that specifically include considerations about race, Rutgers' Lee added. For Lee, a race-conscious law cannot be colorblind. "If you give equal protection in an inequitable system, then the hierarchy and the privileges survive," Lee said. "Title IX is not uniquely set up to be race-conscious."

Most importantly for survivors, conversations with students about their needs are crucial in shaping a process that's more trauma-informed, does not victim-blame, and protects all students of all identities.

"You have to think about what justice looks like for different people. For me, justice looks like being able to go to school and not be afraid that my perpetrator is going to harass me," Cartagena said. "Title IX means not being scared to come forward."


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