“I believe you. I support you. You are not alone.”
So shouted a crowd of sexual assault survivors, friends and family, activists and students outside the Department of Education on Thursday during the National Vigil for Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault. The vigil aimed to push back against Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education’s September rollback of Obama-era Title IX guidelines.
The department rescinded the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter on sexual violence and the 2014 “Questions and Answers on Title IX Sexual Violence” last month. The policies had advised schools to use a “more-likely-than-not” standard for adjudicating accusations of sexual assault or misconduct and laid out appeals process standards for handling cases. The department argued the policies violated the right to due process, according to the interim guidance currently in effect while the department creates new permanent protocols, which are not expected for several months.
Delivering a speech at the vigil, Olivia Hinerfeld (SFS ’17) shared her experience as a survivor of sexual assault as a freshman at Georgetown. Her long period of successful recovery has been interrupted by the current administration’s rollback of protections for campus assault victims, according to Hinerfield.
“Now, four years later, I once again feel that fear crawling back in as this administration and Betsy DeVos work to undo everything that we’ve fought for,” Hinerfeld said. “But looking out at all of you gives me hope. We know that the Education Department can and must do better.”
The vigil was organized by sexual assault awareness organizations It’s On Us, End Rape on Campus and Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment; sexual assault survivor advocacy group SurvJustice; and feminist activist groups Women’s March and the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Annie Clark, a women’s rights activist whose activism was heavily featured in the 2015 documentary film about campus sexual assault, “The Hunting Ground,” helped organize the vigil.
Clark said while there is currently heightened media attention toward the issue, sexual assault policy and prevention is a long-term matter. Clark alluded to a hashtag recently popularized on social media after dozens of allegations of sexual assault surfaced against movie director Harvey Weinstein.
“I think the recent hashtag of #MeToo and everything that came out with Harvey Weinstein investigations, make this a big talking point right now in the media,” Clark said. “But when the media excitement dies down, that doesn’t mean sexual assault goes away. We are here for the long haul, and what’s happening in this current administration is rolling back protections for survivors of sexual violence.”
Clark said the administration’s actions amounted to a reversal of recent progress on the issue of support for assault survivors.
“Regardless what this administration says, we are tethered together in a human family. And therefore we have a responsibility to each other to show up,” Clark said. “Regardless of why we’re here today personally, we all know that the status quo is unacceptable. This administration is moving us in so many different ways, backwards in time.”
Sexual assault survivors from other schools, including The George Washington University, Central Penn College and St. Paul Catholic High School, also attended the vigil.
Vigil attendee Chessy Prout became involved with PAVE after she decided to go public with her personal experience of sexual assault.
“What bothered me the most after my assault was that I didn’t know that what had happened to me was against the law. I thought I was being too sensitive. I thought I didn’t do enough. I thought it was my fault,” Prout said.
Prout was sexually assaulted at age 15, but did not tell anyone until her senior year of high school in an interview on the “Today” show in 2016. Prout said she tried to find a positive message in her experience by getting involved with activism.
“I decided that people need to care about survivors of sexual violence. A lot of times we’re put as the nameless, faceless victims and the perpetrators are given all the spotlight,” Prout said. “PAVE’s been a great resource for me and my family in helping me feel empowered, so I just want to keep on moving that forward.”
Members of the transgender community, including Swarthmore graduate Jay Wu, also shared their experiences at the vigil. Wu said sexual assault is “very much a transgender issue.” As many as one in two transgender individuals are sexually assaulted or abused in their lifetimes, according to research cited by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The withdrawal of Title IX guidance around sexual assault was also actually the withdrawal of the last piece of Department of Education guidance that explicitly said that Title IX protects transgender students,” Wu said.
DeVos’ decision to roll back Title IX support ignores the needs of trans students, Wu said.
“I would hope that Secretary DeVos would actually listen to survivors and make decisions based on the needs of survivors, just as I would hope she would listen to trans students about the actual needs of trans students,” Wu said.