The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On top of everything else, sexual assault hurts the survivors’ grades

University of Iowa junior Patrick Took gathers with friends during a rape and violence awareness rally on campus in Iowa City. (David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP)

The semester Deena* was raped, her grades plummeted: She received a “D” in one course and failed another. It was the classes requiring participation in which her grades suffered the most, as some days she was too terrified to leave her dorm room, especially after running into her assailant on campus.

When Deena went to her academic dean to explain, he patronized. “Lots of students graduate with a 2.0,” he said. Sure, Deena was aware that some students did. But Deena graduated at the top of her high school class; she shouldn’t have been one of them.

I’ve worked with more than a dozen campus sexual violence survivors, and Deena’s experience is all too common. All of my clients saw their grades suffer, sometimes dramatically. While there are no national statistical studies on the impact of sexual assault on grades, my colleagues report similar findings.

One in five women are sexually assaulted in college, according to a  White House report. The rates are also particularly high in the LGBT community. In the aggregate, this means that millions of college women and LGBT students have seen their grade-point averages unfairly deflated due to sexual violence. As one of my clients bluntly put it, “it’s as if my transcript is covered in his semen.”

Grades matter. They are the mechanism professors use to assess a student’s performance and schools use to rank the student body. They are the means by which students measure their own achievement. Outside of school, employers and graduate programs rely on grades to evaluate candidates among an increasingly competitive field.

These deflated GPAs have a rippling negative impact on survivor’s graduate school options and access to professional opportunities. Those lost opportunities are devastating on a micro-level — individual students miss out on what they had worked hard to achieve.

But the problem also has serious consequences on the macro level. It means that we as a society are losing out on the contributions that these students would have made had they been able to start off in professional careers and attend graduate schools that are reflective of their merits, not their rape.

Deena did not earn a “D” or an “F.” Those grades belong to her rapist and her school for failing to fully accommodate her academic needs. Diane Rosenfeld, my mentor and the director of Harvard Law School Gender Violence Program worked with Deena’s school to replace the “D” with a “Pass” and ensure the “F” was removed from her transcript. The change in GPA improved her confidence and allowed her to be eligible for her dream to study abroad.

A supportive school is well-positioned to help students like Deena, and lessen the academic impact of sexual violence. I propose here some of the remedial measures a school could offer to do just that.

It is the responsibility of the school, not the student, to ensure the academic accommodation needs are met. One student I worked with had to fend for herself, repeatedly recounting the assault to her professors to request extensions, sometimes receiving no response in return. Rather, a designated campus administrator should be available to contact professors and assure the survivor that academic accommodations are carried out. In particular, survivors may find class participation difficult following sexual violence, and removal of a participation requirement can significantly improve a student’s grade.

Restore Academic Record. Where a student’s grades have already suffered because of a sexual assault, for example because the student had not yet informed the school of the assault, or the school failed to provide accommodations, schools should provide opportunities to remedy the survivor’s transcript. For example, the school could remove affected grades, allow the survivor to retake a course, replace poor grades with “passes,” or offer to attach an official addendum to transcripts explaining impacted grades.

Graduate programs. Graduate schools should invite applicants to explain low grades related to sexual violence, and provide opportunities for students to recalculate their GPA without the assault-affected grades. These efforts should be done in a manner that respects the applicant’s privacy.

Schools should make every effort to ensure that their misconduct proceedings do not to interfere with academic success. I worked with a student who was required to complete an appeal of his rape case during his exam period. His final grades that semester were the worst of his academic career. Access to campus justice should not have inversely impacted his GPA. Schools should take care not to schedule hearings during midterms or final exams.

GPA requirements. Where schools have a GPA requirement for maintaining a scholarship or participation in school programs, survivors should be offered a semester or year-long forgiveness period in which their grades would not count towards eligibility.

Warning signs. Where a student’s grades take a sudden downturn, academic deans should be on alert that the student might have experienced sexual violence-related trauma, and reach out to that student before placing her or him on academic probation.

Many survivors have gone on to achieve great successes. They have. But they shouldn’t be handicapped by grades impacted by sexual violence. And schools can do much to prevent the academic fallout that all too often follows a sexual assault.

* Name and identifying information has been changes to protect the privacy of the survivor.