On a blisteringly hot day nearly four years ago, we and dozens of other student survivors of sexual assault descended on the Education Department’s plaza in Washington with a bullhorn. We carried boxes containing a petition with 200,000 signatures demanding that the agency responsible for enforcing Title IX — the federal civil rights law that protects student victims of sexual assault — actually do so. One of our demands was that the department release a list of the colleges and universities under investigation for sexual assault-related violations of Title IX.
With investigations kept secret, the public couldn’t understand the scale of the campus sexual assault problem or universities’ reluctance to address it directly, and students were left in the dark about investigations at their own schools. At Tufts University, for instance, individual student survivors had filed year after year the same complaints concerning mishandling of reports by the very same administrators — and had no idea the other student complainants existed, let alone that they were having the very same problems. At the University of Virginia, the Education Department had multiple investigations ongoing, but almost no one on campus knew, including the complainants.
Almost a year after our protest, the Obama administration finally relented and published its list of investigations, which the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights periodically updated. But on Tuesday, the Trump administration announced plans to hide it again.
Candice Jackson, acting assistant secretary of Education for Civil Rights, told a group of university lawyers that she considered the list we fought so hard for a “list of shame.” “Our job at OCR is to do our job,” she said. “Our job isn’t to threaten, punish, or facilitate drawing media or public attention.”
Jackson doesn’t seem to understand the purpose of her office or of government transparency. As we learned from our own grass roots research in the months before our 2013 protest, college students rarely even knew their schools were under investigation until we forced the government to disclose open cases. As a result, the Office of Civil Rights often missed the opportunity to hear from survivors with similar experiences to the complainant; because those survivors had no idea their schools were under investigation, they didn’t realize they should come forward to speak about how their own assaults were mishandled. Students, like those at Tufts, sometimes put time and money into filing duplicative, unnecessary complaints, wasting their own resources and the government’s. Department investigations dragged on for years — but no one knew it unless they were tapped into our informal network of student survivors.
The Office of Civil Rights’ job is to enforce federal law so students can learn regardless of who they are or where they come from. And yes, part of that responsibility is investigating and cracking down on schools that violate the law — for example, those that refuse to investigate reports of sexual assault or provide key accommodations, like housing changes and mental health care, to survivors. Part of that responsibility is making clear to schools that the Office of Civil Rights means business, so that administrators don’t think they can get away with violating students’ civil rights.
But that’s not the purpose of the list. By informing students and their families about schools under investigation, the Obama administration simply made accessible information to which the public is already entitled under the Freedom of Information Act, information crucial for survivors seeking help and change when their schools violate their rights. Thanks to the list, students know what to look out for on campus and, if they are mistreated, that they are not alone. Transparency also improves government enforcement by inviting students to contact the office about their experiences on investigated campuses.
The list is also essential for the public’s efforts to hold the department accountable. Jackson tells us she’s doing her job, but how can we know? (Recently, the National Women’s Law Center had to sue the department for its failure to provide records responsive to a FOIA request related to Title IX enforcement.) Jackson has been critical of the Obama administration’s delay in resolving complaints, but the only reason we knew about those delays was because of the list we pushed for it to release.
Jackson’s comments earlier this week offer a promise to university administrators: Under my watch, we’ll be nicer. We won’t embarrass you. We can all get along. But the government’s job isn’t to protect university administrators from public relations headaches; it’s to protect students. And if the department isn’t committed to that mission, we’ll be back on that plaza with boxes and boxes of signatures. We still have that bullhorn, and we know how to use it.