Chad W. Dunn is a civil rights lawyer in Houston at the law firm of Brazil & Dunn. Together with the Waco law firm of Dunnam & Dunnam, he represents more than 10 women suing Baylor University for alleged civil rights violations.
In the coming weeks, many young women will return to college fearing they will pass by their rapist on campus. Even if you don’t have a daughter headed off to college, you should not be misled about the meaningful impact of legal protections designed to help them, nor the current misinformation campaign being waged to justify rolling back these safeguards.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently announced that she is reconsidering the guidelines protecting sexual assault victims on college campuses, and opponents of the guidelines have since organized a campaign to support the proposed rollback, including taking the issue to court. Just last week, a male Texas A&M student filed a Title IX lawsuit alleging that his educational environment was discriminatory because the guidelines denied him a reasonable process to adjudicate whether he had committed sexual assault.
Meanwhile, advocates are pressing for reforms that would require survivors to prove a sexual assault occurred under the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal prosecution, which would make it near impossible for schools to address the complaints of sexual assault survivors. And lawyers in civil cases are pressing courts to adopt more difficult legal standards and shorter statutes of limitations for survivors pursuing Title IX civil cases.
Wrongful accusations of sexual assault can indeed ruin one’s life. However, important procedural safeguards are in place to ensure that those few wrongful cases are dealt with. We shouldn’t overcorrect our sexual assault policies by reducing protections for hundreds of thousands of young women simply because of a handful of unjust outcomes.
Having represented many sexual assault survivors — including a large group of claimants asserting their civil rights against Baylor University — I understand how brave a young woman must be to step out of the shadows to report sexual assault and then endure a second battery of victimization. They are interviewed multiple times by law enforcement and school officials and treated as suspects themselves. They submit to uncomfortable physical examinations and face a reality of forever marring their personal and educational records.
A sexual assault survivor is assured of months, if not years, of struggle and legal minefields. Her reputation is put under the microscope. She must deal with the emotional and physical injuries of the sexual assault and judgment from family and friends and strangers. It is a horror that should be met upon no one, and our system does almost everything possible to discourage reporting of assault, something research bears out over and over.
More than 5 percent of college women — that’s 300,000 students — are raped each year. Only 12 percent of these rapes are reported to law enforcement, less than the already low 16 percent national average. Of reported rapes, as much as a third are prosecuted and even fewer convicted. False accusations exist in all crimes, but only between 2 percent and 10 percent of rape allegations are determined to be false.
The problem with the recent debate is that many commentators seemingly assume that sexual assault on campuses is an either-or problem. Either one stands for procedural safeguards for the accused or one stands with the victims. This is a false choice.
No person accused of sexual assault should suffer punishment without adequate proof. But persons who report sexual assault should be provided reasonable accommodations by schools, not impossible-to-overcome legal barriers. Simple remedies can make an enormous difference and have little or no impact on alleged assailants.
There is no reason that sexual assault survivors should be assigned classes in the same hallway on the same days with their accused rapist. They should be offered classes in another building or on a different day, or permitted to take the class online. At a minimum, universities should inform these students that their alleged assailant would be in the vicinity at the same time.
Sexual assault survivors should also be offered reasonable grade forgiveness. Many of our clients, despite attending universities on academic scholarships with outstanding grades, suffered academically after their rape. Universities should forgive these grades or, at the minimum, permit victims to retake those classes for replacement grades.
Other remedies are needed. Schools should offer free counseling sessions as well as financial assistance to deal with medical co-pays, hospitalization and other costs that often are incurred after an assault. None of these accommodations impact the alleged assailant.
More than 40 years ago, Congress passed Title IX promising a non-discriminatory environment for every student attending schools that accept federal funds. As citizens, we should not fall for the false belief that only those rights of the few wrongfully accused assailants can be protected. Victims across this country are slogging along attempting to reach their higher education dreams while carrying severe emotional and physical wounds. We shouldn’t let them suffer alone.